Oysters: Considered and Adored

Platter of raw oysters on the half shell
Platter of oysters on the half shell

Four other  Oysters followed them,
And yet another four;
And thick and fast they came at last,
And more, and more, and more–
All hopping through the frothy waves,
And scrambling to the shore.

—“The Walrus and The Carpenter”
from Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking-Glass and What Alice Found There, 1872

I wasn’t an adventurous eater as a kid. But my first oyster roast in Atlanta on a brisk February day changed that as we huddled around tables in a parking lot, shucking and slurping the briny delights, the warmth of the charcoal roasters filling the air with a heady aroma. Pitchers of beer were passed to wash down the delectable bivalves we savored for a good cause: a fundraiser for the humane society. After this discovery my mother and I bonded over oysters, treating ourselves to a dozen on the half shell or a basket of fried lovelies when my father was away at work (he not being one for oysters), or on occasion the most decadent treat of all: oyster stew. In its simplest, classic form, it is not much more than a pot of cream heated gently, seasoned only with a few shakes of sherry, Tabasco, and Worcestershire (depending on the mood) and the oysters slipped into the pot for a brief simmer.

 My mother would reminisce over the oyster roasts of her childhood in Charleston, a February birthday tradition for her. My grandfather would buy a croker sack of oysters from a little island in the marshes on the way out to Folly Beach. They would be roasted in the backyard just until the heat bubbles enough to pop them open and served simply with melted butter and saltines. For her, it was a chance to roll up blue jeans and get a little messy in the celebration.

 Proclaimed as an aphrodisiac and even a brain food, oyster cultivation and admiration dates back centuries. One of my favorite treatments is found in the words of MFK Fisher’s Consider the Oyster, passages perfect for reading aloud to guests dipping into the luxurious delicacies and sipping bubbles or gin. Have them broiled, on the half shell, or fried, drizzled with a creamy buttermilk dressing, stuffed into a po’ boy so that when you bite through the crunchy, crisp coating, a burst of sweet sea hits your mouth, transporting you to an elegant jazz bar all the way down in New Orleans.

 “The flavor of an oyster depends on several things. First, if it is fresh and sweet and healthy it will taste good, quite simply… good, that is, if the taster like oyster.  Then, it will taste like a Chincoteague or a blue point or a mild oyster from the Louisiana bayous or perhaps a metallic tiny Olympia from the Western coast.” —MFK Fisher, Consider the Oyster

But the future of oysters hangs in the balance. Oysters were once so abundant in the Chesapeake Bay that their reefs defined waterways, and what is a luxury today was considered a meal for the poor. Today, after decades of overfishing and environmental damage, the population is down to 1% of what it once was. The future of the Bay is tied to the future of oysters. Oysters filter the algae, sediment, and other pollutants but depend on clean water with a stable shelf and oxygen to grow. Oyster farmers are working to replenish the population and clean the waterways with techniques such as shell recycling programs. According to NPR, oyster farms “offer a lot of the same ecological benefits that come from wild oyster reefs. They filter water and provide habitat for fish, crabs and other creatures.”

Growing oysters in cages does not cause the environmental harm associated with the older method of dredging. According to the Monterey Bay Seafood Watch database, “Most oyster farming operations are very well managed and produce a sustainable product.” Farmed oysters are said to make up 95% of total oyster consumption.

Local oysters are rightfully reclaiming their place in the DC culinary scene. Oyster bars pair them with fantastic cocktails at some of the hottest dining rooms in town including Rappahannock Oyster Bar at Union Market (also supplying other establishments), Pearl Dive Oyster Palace on 14th Street, Shaw’s Eat the Rich, and the three locations of Hank’s Oyster Bar. Two more establishments harken back to the history of this native shellfish: Old Ebbitt Grill (dating back to 1856) and Senart’s Oyster and Chop House, which pays tribute to the original Senart’s (c. 1913) in the milk painting on the side.

It’s just as easy to treat yourself at home with your own bushel and some crackers from the seafood market. Mix a batch of martinis with DC’s own Green Hat gin, a perfect pair in sophistication, elegance and history. However you enjoy them, remember, our part is easy. Revere them for the luxury they are, support local oyster farmers with your purchase, and help restorative efforts by putting your dollars back into the system… for the Bay and your palate.

Recipes

The Classic by New Columbia Distillers

Ingredients

  • Green Hat gin, 2 1/2 oz
  • dry vermouth, 1/4 oz
  • green olive
  • twist of lemon peel
  • ice cubes

Toss a handful of ice cubes into a mixing glass, then pour in the gin and the vermouth. Stir well. Strain and pour into a martini glass. To finish, either drop a green olive into the bottom of the martini glass or arrange a twist of lemon peel on the edge of the martini glass.

Oysters on the Half Shell with Classic Mignotte
Preparation
Arrange shucked oysters on a bed of rock salt.
Stir 1/4 cup red wine vinegar, 1 minced shallot, a pinch of sugar and a few twists of freshly cracked black pepper in a small bowl.
Drizzle over shucked oysters