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Keep On Shuckin'

Live dangerously with the Double Dumbass Combo at Gilhooley's Raw Bar

They put a couple of ice cubes on top of each raw oyster at Gilhooley's to keep it cold. I push the ice aside and squeeze a few drops of lemon juice onto my next victim. The naked shellfish wiggles helplessly on the little fork as I lower it wickedly into my mouth. There is no flavor quite so delicate -- a little briny with a fleshy sweetness -- and no texture quite so slippery and sensual on the tongue. Raw oysters are one of the most exquisite culinary experiences on the planet. I will continue slurping them until shortly before I die. (And you're probably thinking that might not be long from now.)

The lawsuit stemming from the death of Mike Matthews, a Houston barber who ate an oyster contaminated by the bacteria Vibrio vulnificus (see "Flesh-Eating Oysters," by George Flynn, March 14), has prompted a lot of discussion on the subject of oysters lately. In a recent letter to the editor, Jim Yarbray says he has a one-word reaction whenever he sees somebody eating raw oysters: dumbass. Millions of Americans have come to the same conclusion. People in the United States don't eat oysters like they used to, raw or fried. Total oyster sales in the last few years are running half of what they were in 1989. Yarbray sums up the cautious attitude: "Eating a delicacy is not worth a life," he says, "no matter how small the risk."

I don't agree, so count me as one of the aforementioned dumbasses. About 20 of the approximately 20 million raw oyster-eaters in this country die each year for their culinary pleasure, so the odds of expiring from eating an oyster are a million to one. Eating raw oysters is well worth the gamble, in my book. It's like the lottery in reverse: You win every time you play -- unless you hit the jackpot and die. I also will gladly roll the dice with juicy, rare hamburgers -- like the one I just ordered at Gilhooley's.

There's only one chance in a million that these slurpy, slimy bivalves will kill you.
Deron Neblett
There's only one chance in a million that these slurpy, slimy bivalves will kill you.

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Gilhooley's Raw Bar

222 Ninth St.
Dickinson, TX 77539

Category: Restaurant > American

Region: Outside Houston

Details

281-339-3813. Hours: Monday through Sunday, 6 a.m. to 11 p.m.

Dozen oysters: $4.50
Cheeseburger: $4.45
Gumbo (cup): $4.95; (bowl): $6.95
Shrimp and sausage étouffée: $8.95

222 Ninth Street, San Leon

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A reader named Ken Ryback recommended this funky bar after I complained about the difficulty of finding a rare hamburger these days (see "Home of the Squealer," by Robb Walsh, January 31). "If you go to Gilhooley's on FM 517 in San Leon and ask for a rare hamburger, they ask you, 'Cold rare or warm rare?' " he wrote. "Order it warm; the cold rare is easily healed with a Band-Aid."

I started falling in love with Gilhooley's as I pulled into the unpaved oyster-shell parking lot. The outdoor bar, with its ramshackle patio furniture, is overgrown with vegetation. The interior is all worn woodwork and old furniture, the rafters seemingly held together by the license plates that cover them. Children are forbidden here, no doubt in part because of the risqué artwork and "show us your tits" photos that grace the walls. But it's the menu that made my blood race. Gilhooley's Raw Bar may be the last place in the country where you can get a dozen raw oysters and a rare hamburger for lunch. Maybe they ought to call this the Double Dumbass Combo.

In the pursuit of pleasure, you probably take bigger risks than eating these potentially lethal foodstuffs all the time. Ever go skiing, bicycling, horseback riding or boating? You dumbass! Don't you know you could die from those activities? According to the National Safety Council, the chances of dying in a boating accident (one in 5,092) are much higher than the one-in-a-million odds of dying from eating oysters. Do you consider the risk of drowning every time you go swimming? Why not? It's a hundred times more likely that you will die from drowning (one in 7,972) than I will die from eating oysters.

It's a dangerous life we lead, when you think about it. But I laugh in the face of danger. Especially in months with an r when I am not taking antacids.

Vibrio vulnificus, the bacteria that killed Mike Matthews, is very common in the Gulf of Mexico. You could get infected by stepping on a sharp shell while walking on the beach. The bacteria is present to some extent in every oyster in the gulf. In the winter, the level is fairly low; in the summer, it gets much higher. Hence, the folk wisdom about not eating oysters in a month without an r. Researchers are trying to determine at what level the bacteria should be considered dangerous, but this is complicated by the fact that the vast majority of people have no reaction to it at any level. The at-risk group includes people who have liver trouble, immune system disorders and, it is now suspected, those taking antacids.

The antacid connection was noticed by researchers at the Food and Drug Administration's Gulf Coast Seafood Laboratory. Under normal circumstances, your stomach acids kills Vibrio vulnificus, but when you neutralize those acids, it seems, you give the bacteria a much better chance of surviving the voyage into your intestines. This finding makes me wonder if antacids aren't a factor in other cases of bacteria-related food poisoning. And it leaves us with a chicken-or-the-egg question to ponder: If you get food poisoning, is it the bacteria or the antacids that are to blame?

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