Two books you probably didn’t realize you should read (part II)


Yes, but what about oysters?  Unsightly like a clot of phlegm.  Filthy shells.  Devil to open them too.  Who found them out?  Garbage, sewage they feed on.  Fizz and Red bank oysters.  Effect on the sexual.  Aphrodis.    

–Leopold Bloom from Ulysses by James Joyce

This post has taken me forever to write, and I’m not even sure why.  Maybe it’s easier writing about a book you read half a decade ago.  Originally I meant it to be a quick follow up to Part I, but alas time has gotten away from me.

So why am I writing the second part now?  Because I’ve been craving oysters and because they keep coming up in the news and books I read (see the above quote which I came across last week). 

NC OBX oysters on the half shell

A few weekends ago I bought two dozen oysters from the NC Outer Banks (C. virginica) to take over to a friend’s house for a dinner party.  To accompany the oysters I made a traditional mignonette as well as a ginger and lime mignonette.  I’ll eat oysters with lemon juice or cocktail sauce (my least favorite way) or even plain, but I prefer them with just a touch of acidity and salt, just a small drop or two to enhance the flavor of the oyster rather than overpowering it.

So what’s the book you should read then?  Sex, Death and Oysters: A Half-Shell Lover’s World Tour by Robb Walsh.

While not quite the book I thought it was going to be, it made for a pleasurable and surprising read.   

It’s not been that long since I tried my first oyster in culinary school.  I remember the instructor that day was a stand in, a French version of Elmer Fudd, and he loved his oysters.  I tried one, then two and three, and I’ve kind of been hooked since, though I don’t eat them all that often.

Having had to work the raw station on occasion at the last restaurant I worked at, I was pretty aware of a variety of oysters, especially some of the “boutique” ones coming from the west coast like Chef’s Creek, Fanny Bay and Naked Roy’s.  People are pretty fixated on these oysters, and as Walsh points out in his book, the application of the concept of terrior is happening in the oyster world just as it has to wine, hence all these fancy as fuck names for what to me looked like the same, exact oysters.  And in fact they are the same species of oysters (typically west coast oysters are C. gigas and east coast oysters are C. virginicas), hence the reason they all looked the same but had some silly names attached to them.

As one of the people in charge of ordering for the restaurant I’d have to order oysters.  If I was ever at a loss as to what to order, the message I left went generally like this:  “We need a bushel of coldwater oysters, preferrably something boutique”.  It never went “We’ll take a bushel of Gulf oysters”, which is something that would undoubtedly piss Robb Walsh off. 

His general argument is that Gulf coast oysters have been given a bad wrap, and are just as delicious and wholesome as cold water oysters.  And he’s probably right, but the Gulf coast has lost the image war, mostly due to the presence of Vibrio vilnificus, a bacteria which at the least will make you downright ill, and at its worst will kill you.  According to this article at NPR about 30 people get sick each year from the bacteria and about half of those die (the article also describes the process that would make these oysters safe, and why some people are against it). 

Why the Gulf coast oyster industry wouldn’t just stop supplying oysters for raw consumption from the months of April through October is fairly obvious, but it seems to me that if you want to charge more for your oysters and not risk making people ill, let alone killing them, then you’d stop doing it or figure out a way to provide people with a product they’d be willing to pay for without harming them.  And if I remember from his book correctly, even Walsh has stopped eating Gulf oysters during the warmer months.

Moving away from the Gulf coast oyster controversy, Walsh also captures the history and culture of the oyster.  He describes his experiences in England of going to an annual oyster festival in the town of Colchester, a town basically founded on the cultivation of oysters.  Unable to attend the actual festival (it’s a high end affair attended by invitees only), he describes how waiters were emptying trays and trays of uneaten oysters from the tables down the back staircase where he was seated, and how he was able to dine on them.  Despite the fact that less than a hundred years ago oysters were a staple among the lower classes in England, their stocks have been reduced mostly due to pollution, which drove the price up and made them a luxury item (and indeed they are:  a quick glance at Green’s Restaurant and Oyster Bar in London reveals the going price for a half dozen Maldon oysters is £18.90 – or $30.48!!).  As a result most people in England have no desire to eat something that resembles an “a clot of phlegm” as Leopold Bloom’s character in Ulysses points out.  Or it could also be the fact that oysters are low in food energy:  a dozen oysters contain roughly 110 calories, though they are rich in zinc, iron, calcium, and vitamin A.

In France that’s not an issue though, and it seems as if the country goes oysters crazy during the holidays.  If my memory serves me right, some, if not a lot of the oysters eaten in France (at least ones designated as Belons) and claimed to be French in origin, are actually shipped from Ireland and placed in water in France for a couple of weeks and then called French.  Apparently there are no regulations, which seems odd for a country steeped in their appellations.  And while people may look down their down nose at the process, they’re more than willing to hold their breath while they do it.

Walsh’s book also explores the oyster world from the bayou in Louisiana to Galveston Bay, to the Northwest and Connecticut, and attends an oyster festival on the west coast of Ireland.  It’s a worthwhile, interesting and entertaining read for anyone even half interested in oysters and the environmental and regulatory issues surrounding their cultivation.  Additionally, Walsh provides various recipes throughout plus a listing of places in the U.S., Ireland, England, France and Canada where he’s enjoyed his share of oysters.

For further reading, I came across this site while writing this post –

And for anyone interested, here are the recipes for the mignonette sauces I made a few weeks back:

Mignonette sauce (classical)

  • 1/4 cup red wine vinegar (it may have been a little bit more)
  • crushed black pepper (or coarsely ground), maybe half a teaspoon
  • 1-2 minced shallots, depending on size
  • about a teaspoon or so of finely chopped tarragon
  • pinch of salt (kosher of course)

Ginger and Lime Mignonette sauce

  • 3 tbsp rice wine vinegar
  • 1 tbsp lime juice
  • zest of 1 lime
  • 1 tsp minced ginger
  • 1/2 tsp minced chives
  • 1 tbsp cracked pepper or coarse ground
  • Salt to taste

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