Oysters on the half shell

Oysters on the half shell (Henry Hong / July 14, 2014)

So how does that old chestnut about “R” months—months with an “R” in their spelling—and oysters go? I've been thinking about this because I just accepted a job at Thames Street Oyster House. In an impromptu poll of fellow barflies, folks were split pretty evenly into thirds of: “ONLY eat oysters in ‘R’ months,” “NEVER eat oysters in ‘R’ months,” and “dafuq?” If you’ve never heard of such a thing, don’t sweat it, because it’s largely bullshit. For the record though, the answer is “ONLY eat in ‘R’ months.” To save you the inevitable process of carefully recounting each month of the year, that means you’re not supposed to eat oyster in summer, or May-August. As with most such adages, there is at least a nugget of truth in its origin, although it’s hard to say which of the following, if any, are actual contributors:

  • In some parts of the world, some oysters simply don’t taste as good in summer due to their particular reproductive cycles.
  • Fresh shellfish spoils faster during hotter months (duh), so in the days before refrigeration, it was better safe than sorry.
  • Warm water causes algae blooms, which may introduce toxins into filter feeders (like oysters).
  • There are certain types of oysters found on the West Coast during summer months that can be toxic.
But in this part of the world in 2014, we don’t have to worry about any of that crap all that much.

Types

Another fun trivia question to ask a bar full of people (helps to offer a shot to the winner) is, how many species of oyster can you name? Almost everyone will begin with “Blue Point,” which has become a sort of generic catch-all for mild-flavored Mid-Atlantic oysters, even though true Blue Points are a discrete type. But Blue Points, Malpeques, Wellfleets, Tatamagouches, etc., are actually just varieties of a single species—crassotrea virginica, aka Atlantic oysters. In fact, there are only five species total on Earth—Atlantic, Pacific, Kumamoto, Olympia, and Belon. The first are common around here, the next three on the West Coast and in Asia, and the last in Europe. The differences in size, shape, and flavor within a species are determined entirely by environmental factors such as temperature, water conditions, and of course the stuff upon which the oysters feed. Thus, you might hear someone truly nerdy about oysters referring to “terroir,” a term used in winemaking referring to the ground it comes from. A more recently coined term is “merroir,” referring to the properties of the seawater in which oysters are grown as part of the farming process. Anyway, that means an Atlantic oyster farmed in a warm, mostly freshwater river delta might grow large, rich, and very mild in flavor with low salinity, while the very same organism that’s lived wild in a cold marine environment could be more salty from filtering briny water, and leaner from a relative scarcity of food. Here in Maryland, home shuckers will probably be stuck with the “Blue Points” or “Chincoteagues.” 

Shucking and Eating

When eating oysters raw, the biggest obstacle is opening them. And having shucked two cases of oysters (around 200) for a party recently, I can tell you it’s a huge pain in the ass unless you’re a real pro. The art of shucking alone could comprise this whole piece and there’s plenty of information online, so in the interest of space here are some tips:

  • Always place the oyster on a rag or towel, which is on a flat stable surface.
  • Always place a rag or towel (or the folded over half of the one the oyster is sitting upon) between your non-knife-wielding hand and the top of the oyster.
  • If a particular specimen is being really stubborn, cut your losses and move on . . . but save that one for cooking, which will open the shell via heat anyway.

As far as eating raw oysters: Although it may seem straightforward, there are a couple of nuances. First there are the condiments, the most common being the trio of cocktail sauce, hot sauce, and lemon juice. More traditionally (i.e. Old World) would be a mignonette sauce, which is simply red- or white-wine vinegar, finely chopped shallots, and cracked pepper. All of these are meant to balance the brine and richness of the oyster, and there’s definitely something very satisfying about a mouthful of brine, spice, acid, and squish. But for specialty oysters that pack more of their own flavors, adding too many external components may be a detriment.

As an experiment, keeping in mind that water conditions affect the oyster’s ultimate flavor, I tried something I’ve decided to call “live brining.” I bought some run-of-the-mill oysters (they were labeled “Chesapeake” at Safeway) and tasted a couple to get a starting point for flavor. As expected, they were very mild, but nice and meaty. I then made a brine with tap water, salt, shallots, some herbs, garlic, and red-wine vinegar, and submerged the remaining oysters overnight. Result? Fucking amazing! The oysters did indeed seem to filter enough of the doctored brine through their systems to be popping with flavor immediately upon shucking. The downside is that of the six oysters I brined, only four survived (dead ones have open shells that won’t close).

Contrary to popular belief, dead oysters are not necessarily especially toxic, it's primarily a matter of possibly degraded flavor and texture since enzymes begin to break down the flesh of an oyster upon death. But it's impossible to know how long one has been dead or what the cause was if it's DOA upon purchase. So, generally it's better to err on the safe side and just discard any "gapers".

One last protip about eating oysters that I learned from a lifelong journeyman shucker: Instead of “drinking” the oyster as you would take a sip out of a martini coupe, for example, suck the oyster up from the top in a swift, decisive, vacuuming action. This way you get the meat and much of the liquor (as an oyster’s accompanying “juice” is called) without having to touch the shell edge, which can lead to getting grit in one’s mouth.