Oysters in the Wild
Oysters are gooey bivalve mollusks, like many other edible sea creatures encased in hard calcium shells. Some oysters are known for eating, and others are known for producing pearls (though there isn’t much overlap between the two).
In the wild, oysters are notorious for operating as water filtration systems. They are, in fact, filter feeders, subsisting off of plankton and other sources of nutrients floating about in the water. Thus, the oyster is an important member of any marine ecosystem.
Oysters in History
If you’ve never consumed a raw oyster, you may look at one and think: “What brave soul first tried to eat one of those?” It’s a good question that we don’t know the answer to; we do, however, know that oysters have been considered a key food source since as far back as 7,000 BCE. Evidence of people shucking oysters (that’s the act of removing the top shell) has been found in various locations, indicating that many different coastal cultures consumed oysters in some form or another.
Oyster farming has also been around for centuries. This is the practice by which oyster larvae (also called oyster “seeds”) are “planted”, or prompted to build their shells in a specific and often enclosed location, to propagate for future harvesting. Into the late 1800s’, oyster farming was a big deal in New York Harbor. They were high-quality and sought-after for their abundance, but the native oysters were being over-harvested. Aquaculturists introduced new, foreign oyster species to the harbor to buoy supply. Unfortunately, the foreign species overran the harbor and wiped out the native oysters even further. Remember that bit about how great oysters are for the environment? Well, their absence is pretty darn bad. Oyster habitat restoration has been an important effort in recent years, not only to sustain certain species of oyster but also to help revitalize debilitated marine environments.
As the oyster beds that once thrived in New York Harbor eroded, people learned a difficult environmental lesson. But an important economic lesson was unfolding as well. Oysters were once considered working class food, cheap as anything. However, as the supply decreased, demand for oysters rose exponentially. They became a delicacy, and remain as such today, especially when served raw.
Oysters served raw appear as in the pictures above, on the half shell. Using a small fork, you swipe the bottom of the oyster meat to ensure it’s detached from the shell, and then slide it straight from the shell into your mouth. Oysters generally taste briny and a little salty. Depending on the variety you get, you may find buttery or even fruity flavors; as with anything else, there are significant disparities between high- and lower quality oysters.
Nutritionally, raw oysters are very low in calories. Half a dozen clocks in at only 170 calories. They’re high in protein and a few other key vitamins like zinc. Oysters are often considered aphrodisiacs, though this is most likely due to their vague resemblance to human body parts. Popular toppings for raw oysters include lemon, horseradish, cocktail sauce, hot sauce, and my personal favorite, mignonette (a vinegar, wine, and aromatics concoction).
Oysters can often be served cooked in all kinds of ways. One of the most famous recipes is Oysters Rockefeller. This dish has a sauce made with butter and parsley or spinach, topped with breadcrumbs, and place under the broiler. Grilling oysters is a popular summertime treat, and fried oysters (sans shell, clearly) taste great on sandwiches and salads.
So, now that you know so much about them, are you brave enough to try raw oysters? They’re as important a part of human history as they are a part of our future, so whether or not you enjoy the taste, consider donating to oyster bed restoration efforts: https://oysterrecovery.org/