"Oysters and champagne, and maybe a bottle of Jack Daniels afterwards to knock me unconscious."
Ken Follett - Author
Oysters are a tasty oxymoron. Sweet and salty. Briny and earthy. In New York City where ChowFu is based, oysters have held a long history as both a decadent treat of the rich as well as a workingman's meal in the slums. One thing's for sure. There is no contridiction to Ken's decree that a healthy plate of half shells would make a perfect respite for a final meal.
While there's no shortage of ideas when it comes to cooking oysters, none can match the freshly shucked mollusk that smells like you are dining in the middle of the ocean. We'll teach you a thing or two about shucking oysters in our RECIPE page, but in the meantime let's take a deeper dive into what makes these little creatures so popular around the globe.
This tasty bivalve is often miscategorized and confused with other similar mollusks. Oysters come from the taxonomic superfamily Ostreoidea, and typically belong in the genus Crassostrea. In fact, just about all oysters that people consume in North America come from the same family, genus, and species (Ostreidae Crassostrea virginica). The differences in taste and appearance is due to the diversity of the environment from which they are raised (temperature, salinity, age, etc).
There are three popular myths that are prominent in Oyster lore, and those are:
Since there isn't a whole lot of cooking involved with Mr. Follett's final request, we'll go ahead and explore these oyster myths to see whether they hold merit.
Not exactly. "Pearl Oysters", although they LOOK very similar to the oysters you consume, are actually from a biological family call Pteridae (we can't pronounce it either), which is associated with saltwater clams. Furthermore, freshwater pearls come from the family Unionidae and are considered a species of mussels. Biologically speaking, the Ostreid (true Oyster) will typically eject an irritant that comes into the shell, whereas the pearl "oyster" will build a coating of argonite and conchiolin, the components that make up a mother-of-pearl.
Biology lessons aside, even the Dutch were confused when Henry Hudson reported his oyster discovery in New York harbor in 1609. One of the main reasons that the Dutch sent the West Indian Company to North America was the prospect of wealth from the pearl trade (along with beaver pelts and other Native American goodies). Needless to say, that one didn't pan out so well when they realized that none of the oysters had any pearls to offer.
Without the prospect of wealth from pearl cultivation (and maybe as revenge for making them go all this way), the Dutch ate them instead (as with the rest of Europe). To an embarassing excess. With the invention of oyster dredging, the delicious molluscs were harvested with impunity, leaving the coast of New York barren and the rich waters of the Hudson devoid of life. Today, conservation measures through restorative oyster farming has begun to reverse our past mistakes. Oyster aquaculture helps improve the quality of our waterways, and makes a timeless appetizer available again for the masses.
Giacomo Casanova, a person who's name is a synonym for "womanizer", is said to have eaten dozens of oysters each day to keep his libido healthy. (Oddly enough, they also called him "The Prince of Macaroni", though that name lacked the zing to last through generations of Chinese telephone) Different cultures from various centuries all claim the oyster as a love potion, but what about the science? Are there any real associations between oysters and a person's sex drive
As with most things, the answer is sort of. As many people already know, oysters are high in zinc, a trace element important to reproductive health. Furthermore, a team of American and Italian scientists (of course) has found (in 2005) that oysters contain certain rare amino acids known to trigger higher levels of sex hormones. We won't mention the specifics of the scientific study here, but it's worth noting that these scientists stress that the oysters must be consumed raw for the amino acids to be most effective. Who are we to argue with science?
This rumor has been around for literally centuries, albeit it was more meaningful then than it is now. In the early 18th century, the colonial government of New York banned oystering between May 1st to September 1st to combat over-harvesting. Those summer months correspond to the times where oysters reproduce. From a pure taste perspective, oysters are known to be smaller and less palatable during this period. Further evidence suggests that toxins from red tide are more likely to be absorbed during the summer months when bacteria levels are higher. Red tide is a natural phenomenon whereby a large concentration of a particular algae causes a red discoloration in the water which has been associated with the production of natural toxins in the environment.
But times have changed, and almost all the oysters you consume these days come from oyster farms that are strictly regulated to control for toxins, natural or otherwise. Advance harvesting techniques make it now possible to enjoy the same great tasting bivalve all year long. Just like the rumor of no No Sushi on Sunday/Monday, this myth has long been debunked.
In preparation for writing this blog post, we read Mark Kurlansky's Book on the topic. It's an exceptional piece of literature on the history of New York (and really the United States), told through the point of view of our tasty mollusk. Highly recommended.
And while you're at it, pick up one of these great reads by #1 International Bestselling author Ken Follett. We thank him now for giving us the opportunity to do so much "research" on the topic of oysters (and Jack Daniel's incidentally). We'll skip the talk on Jack and Champagne for now, since we're planning for an entire standalone episode dedicated to whiskey and alcohol (we can't wait either). [Note: The link provided is an affiliate link to Amazon. If you want to help support ChowFu.co and subsidize the cost of running our website, just click on the link above when you do your regular Amazon shopping. It comes at no cost to you and we get some credit from Amazon for the referral! Furthermore, we only link to items we own and highly recommend.]