To me, anytime is a good time to eat oysters, preferably raw on the half-shell. However, there’s a common piece of folk wisdom to the effect that, optimally, one should eat raw oysters only during months containing the letter R (i.e., September through April) since that’s when the “oysters R in season.” According to the folks at Pacific Seafood—which supplies oysters to local Gastronomy Inc. restaurants, Albertsons and others—only eating oysters in R months is a myth. Most likely, that practice dates back to the days when oysters were shipped without adequate refrigeration and could spoil, especially in warm weather months. Today, we can enjoy oysters year ’round.
Well, that’s mostly true. You do want to avoid eating unprocessed (unpasteurized) and uncooked oysters from the Gulf of Mexico during non-R months, as well April, September and October. Two bacteria—Vibrio vulnificus and Vibrio parahaemolyticus—proliferate in the Gulf from April through October. However, it’s safe to eat oysters from Pacific coastal waters from northern California to Alaska all year. Ditto for East Coast oysters from north of Boston.
As I mentioned, Pacific Seafood Inc. supplies fresh oysters to many local restaurants, including the Market Street grills and oyster bars, where oysters are available year ’round in abundance. Annually, the oyster bars serve 600,000 oysters, with 1,500 gallons of cocktail sauce on 5,000 pounds of ice. And although you’d think eating raw oysters in a landlocked state like Utah might be a risky proposition, it’s not. That’s because Pacific Seafood owns and operates seven of the largest seafood processing plants on the West Coast, and is also supported by strategically located receiving stations, including ones in Canada and Alaska. If you’ve ever seen Deadliest Catch on the Discovery Channel, you know what I’m talking about.
What it means to the oyster-lover here in Utah is that fresh oysters can go from a fisherman’s boat in Alaska to a receiving station to ensure freshness and onto a refrigerated truck and to the ice counter of your favorite restaurant or seafood purveyor in a matter of days. Properly handled, live oysters have a shelf life of about two weeks.
I’m not prepared to weigh in on whether or not, as many believe, oysters are an aphrodisiac, since I’m basically horny all the time, anyway. However, there is something sensuous about slurping down a raw oyster. Which poses the question: To chew or not to chew? Until recently, I was a non-chewer. That is, I “ate” my oysters by simply dipping them into mignonette sauce and swallowing them whole; the bivalves never touched my teeth. But then I read Bill Buford’s article about Long Island oystermen called “On the Bay” in the book Secret Ingredients. It dawned on me that, by not chewing my oysters, I might be missing out on a lot of flavor. Since then, I’ve become a “chewer,” although one discreet bite is enough to get the job done.
I’m not a raw-oyster snob. I will eat cooked oysters, too. I like ’em fried, grilled, deep fried, poached and steamed. However, cooked oysters are more about sauces and seasonings than the oyster itself. I defy anyone to be able to distinguish, say, a Kumamoto from a Sister Point once it’s been battered and deep-fried. Still, that doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t make your way to Uglesich’s in New Orleans (recently reopened) for the best barbecued oysters on this or any other planet.
But eating oysters on the half shell can open up a world of delicate oyster taste, since each type of oyster has its own unique, subtle flavor profile. Full disclosure: I didn’t grow up eating oysters; I was a late bloomer. In fact, my first raw oyster experience took place well into my adulthood at Felix’s in New Orleans, and then only after many shots of Jägermeister, many more beers and a lot of cajoling from an oyster-loving friend. I understand that raw oysters aren’t for everybody. But at some point many of us go from merely tolerating the things into a full-blown active addiction. The only thing that prevents me from eating oysters on a daily basis is my bank account.
Although there are more than 50 species of oyster, there are only a few varieties: Atlantic oysters, Pacific oysters, Olympia oysters and Flat oysters, according to Pacific Seafood. A good “beginner” oyster is the Kumamoto. For starters, it’s small. And the Kumamoto—introduced from Japan to Northern California’s Humboldt Bay in the 1920s—has a briny, delicately sweet flavor. Recently, at the suggestion of Craig, an Oyster Bar bartender, I tried a Golden Mantle for the first time. Like the Kumamoto, Golden Mantles are small and delicate (from British Columbia’s Sunshine Coast) but have a melon-like finish. Real oyster studs might consider taking on the medium Pacific Oyster, which is usually used for grilling since it ranges from four to five inches in length.
Whatever you fancy—to chew or not to chew, to eat them raw or eat them cooked—always remember that the world is your oyster.
Market Street Grill, Downtown, Cottonwood, University & South Jordan, Market Street Oyster Bar Downtown,
Cottonwood & South Jordan, GastronomyInc.com