The Boisterous Oyster
Coming from the East Coast, and having lived in New Orleans, I experienced how oysters have become a mainstay in the diet due to its indigenous nature. Here in the desert, like all fish and seafood, we can have it flown in on a daily basis, but that makes it expensive and a luxury. Even with happy hour specials for oysters, which are plentiful, they are not as common or popular as in other regions of the country. Some seafood varieties are more prevalent on the West Coast, due to our proximity to the California coast, but oysters are not very common in California because for such a big state and shoreline oysters are not very prolific. Some people and co-ops do farm raise them and harvest wild oysters in certain regions of the California coast, which occurs mostly north of the San Francisco Bay area.
Pacific oysters are enjoyed by many, but due to the pollution in the San Francisco Bay there are limits to the locations for oyster beds. One place where oysters are plentiful in Northern California is Tomales Bay, which has a handful of farms. Other than that, Pacific oysters have been imported from Japan to supply oyster loving Californians. One oyster that is prized from the coast of Northern California is the Kumamoto Oyster, which are very small, tender, eaten in gourmet cuisine and used by the top chefs in the country. They are also imported from Japan.
This is in great comparison to the availability and use of oysters in New York. In New York City oysters were plentiful in the 19th century. Besides claiming to have 50% of the world’s oyster supply, they were also much larger back then before overharvesting. In New York oysters were said to grow up to 10 to 12 inches in length. The street near the water’s edge in New York used to be called Pearl Street, because of the oyster beds. There were many of the beds, but unfortunately New York oysters are not the pearl producing variety. Pearl Street was later paved with the excessive oyster shells produced in the region.
Pearl oysters are not the same breed as “true oysters” which produce edible meat. Pearl oysters can be either freshwater or salt water and almost all mollusks have the ability to produce pearls. Most pearls do not usually have a large value, with 2 1/2 tons of oysters only producing 3 to 4 pearls that are considered valuable. There are many different varieties that produce pearls, the largest being roughly 12 inches across, but the meat is not used for food. Pearls can be produced either naturally or man-made, also known as cultured pearls. Pearls are created when a foreign object gets inside a shell and irritates the animal so it produces a smooth coating which makes it less irritable. This irritant could be either sand, and/or a piece of shell, or any other foreign object that does not belong. It can take 3 to 7 years for an oyster or other mollusk to produce a pearl. Cultured pearls are more plentiful but less valuable than natural pearls.
Most of the oysters eaten in the country came from the Gulf of Mexico before the BP oil-spill disaster. Today this is less so, but the gulf still accounts for the largest remaining oyster reefs on the planet. This is one of the reasons that New Orleans is the home to one of the largest oyster festivals, which is held in the French Quarter, on the waterfront in June.
It was once assumed that oysters were only safe to eat in months with the letter 'r' in their English or French names. This came about because the months of May, June, July and August that do not have r’s are also the warmest months and before refrigeration were the hardest months to keep the oysters cold and avoid bacterial growth. These days you can eat oysters any month of the year.
Oysters are an excellent source of zinc,
iron, calcium and selenium, as well as vitamins A and B12. Traditionally, oysters are considered to be an aphrodisiac, partially because they resemble female sex organs. A team of American and Italian researchers analyzed bivalves and found they were rich in amino acids that trigger increased levels of sex hormones. Their high zinc content aids the production of testosterone.
One culinary adage is that bivalves are known to be alive only when the shells are tightly closed or they close when tapped. Bivalves also should open when they are cooked. Lately that adage has been questioned when one study revealed that 11.5% of mussels, another bivalve, did not open during cooking, but when forced open they were cooked through and safe to eat.