Sex, Death and Oysters

Beneath the muddy waters of Galveston Bay lies one of the greatest seafood treasure troves on earth

I don't bother pointing out to Miss San Francisco that only blubbery seals and surfers in wet suits are insulated enough to venture into the icy waters of the Pacific around the Bay Area. Nor do I bother reminding Miss Cleveland that the Cuyahoga River is legendary among pollution watchers for its tendency to burst into flames.

"And who would eat oysters that come out of that water?" the San Franciscan continues. Suddenly, I feel my jaw muscles tighten. Newly informed about Texas oysters, I feel a strange need to defend them.

"I would," I say. "But actually, the oysters don't come from the Gulf, they come from Galveston Bay. In fact, it's one of the last great oyster reefs in America. And the oysters are fabulous this year."

Croatian-American Misho Ivic brought his oyster boats to Texas from Louisiana in the 1970s.
Troy Fields
Croatian-American Misho Ivic brought his oyster boats to Texas from Louisiana in the 1970s.
Empty shells are hauled out and dumped on the oyster leases to expand the reef.
Troy Fields
Empty shells are hauled out and dumped on the oyster leases to expand the reef.

"Where is Galveston Bay?" the lady from San Francisco wants to know.

"It's between Kemah and San Leon on the west and Anahuac on the east," I say, but she has no idea where I'm talking about. "You know where the ships enter the Houston Ship Channel?" I ask.

"Oh, gross," says a vegetarian woman who's listening in on the edge of the conversation. "So you think all those chemicals spewing out of the oil tankers give the oysters a special flavor?" Cornered now by skeptics, I feel the adrenaline beginning to flow.

I have a Texas Parks and Wildlife oyster map out in my car that shows how big the bay really is and how far the oyster reefs are from the pollution. I consider going out to get it.

"What I resent is that I can't get good oysters in Houston because they have so many cheap ones here," the San Franciscan says. "The Gulf oysters are big and tough. I don't want to chew on an oyster. I would never eat an oyster any bigger than this," she says, making a silver dollar-sized circle with her fingers. "I like blue points and Kumamoto oysters."

"How much do they cost?" I ask.

"I think the last time I had them, it was like $8.95 for three…"

"I like cultivated oysters, too," I admit. "They're delicious. But three little bitty oysters for $9? You live in the last place in America where you can get a dozen oysters for a couple of bucks -- and you want to import $36-a-dozen cultivated oysters from California?"

"That's right," she says.

"You're an oyster snob," I say.

"Okay," she says. "I have no problem with that."

I try to put things in a cultural perspective. "You know, there were once oyster houses all over the country -- California, New England, Chesapeake Bay -- but those places are all gone. The native oysters are all fished out in most of the United States. The Gulf Coast is the last place where you can still sit down in an old-fashioned oyster saloon. This is the last of the old American oyster culture," I say. But it's no use. The conversation has turned to other topics.

The first oyster saloon in America opened in New York in 1763. For more than 100 years, oysters were popular among the rich and poor alike. In the 1800s, even landlocked cities such as St. Louis and Denver had oysters delivered in iced barrels by stagecoach.

Top-end restaurants like Delmonico's in New York sold oysters to wealthy patrons like Diamond Jim Brady (he liked at least three dozen before dinner). And outdoor oyster counters on New York's Canal Street sold poor folks all the oysters they could eat for six cents.

Americans got their oyster-eating traditions from the British, who in turn learned about oysters from the ancient Romans, who believed British oysters to be the finest in the world. And in fact, there was a good reason why the oysters got better as the Romans ventured farther north. In cold water, oysters "fatten up" to protect themselves. But instead of fat, they lay down a sugar compound called glycogen. The colder the water, the more of this sugarcoating they produce. That's why, even here in Texas, oysters taste best during the coldest part of the winter.

By the late 1700s, the once seemingly endless supply of oysters in Europe began to dwindle, and they became more expensive. The principles of oyster cultivation, which had been developed by the Greeks, spread throughout the empire to increase the oyster harvest.

The French system of oyster cultivation is the most sophisticated in the world. Oysters are bred on frames in one part of the sea and matured for several years in government-owned "oyster parks" along the coast. The oysters, called claires, are then fattened in tidal pools. But while French oysters may be the world's best, they're so expensive that they've become a rich man's treat.

The European gourmet oyster culture is now taking over in the United States. In the early 1980s, marine-biologist-turned-fish-monger Bill Marinelli popularized the tiny Kumamoto oysters, which were imported from Japan and grown in California's Humboldt Bay, by selling them to cutting-edge Berkeley restaurants like Chez Panisse, Fourth Street Grill and Zuni Café.

Unfortunately, some overzealous cultivated-oyster salesmen go overboard in trying to justify the high price of their product by belittling America's native oysters and the long culinary tradition they represent.

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