Sex, Death and Oysters

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

There's no doubt that expensive gourmet oysters are the wave of the future. Oregon, Washington and Massachusetts, along with Vancouver, Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island in Canada, are all producing delicious farm-raised oysters these days. And contrary to the San Franciscan's protests, it's easy enough to find pricey cultivated oysters in Houston.

One night, I asked the lady from Cleveland and a Texas oyster lover to join me in an oyster tasting. We started in the funky turquoise and navy dining room of Joyce's Seafood and Steaks, where we polished off three-dozen Gulf oysters and a bottle of New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc.

Marine biologist Sammy Ray, one of the foremost authorities on Gulf oysters
Troy Fields
Marine biologist Sammy Ray, one of the foremost authorities on Gulf oysters

Then we headed over to the tony environs of McCormick & Schmick's, where we were shown to a white linen-covered table. "We're just here to eat oysters," we told the waiter.

"We have Houston's best oysters," the waiter said.

They had 12 varieties of cultivated oysters available. So we got two dozen -- three each of eight different kinds -- and a bottle of French Muscadet. The standouts were the Malpeque oysters from Prince Edward Island, which were extremely salty with a strong fish flavor that harmonized beautifully with the lemony Muscadet. The tiny Kumamoto oysters were delectable, but they were so small you could barely tell you had anything in your mouth. We also sampled salty Imperial Eagle oysters from Vancouver, Fanny Bay oysters and several others.

"The difference between some of these is pretty subtle," I observed.

"With an accent on the 'b' in subtle," the Texas oyster lover said. When we'd finished the oysters and wine, he insisted on a nightcap at Willie G's, a seafood restaurant nearby. There we polished off another two dozen big, fat, watery Gulf oysters. I ate mine with a glass of Fat Tire beer.

"So what's your verdict?" I asked my fellow oyster lovers.

We all had to agree that the cultivated oysters really have more concentrated flavors than Gulf oysters. But a dozen tiny oysters at McCormick & Schmick's sell for $21.65. A dozen fat Gulf oysters at Joyce's go for $6.95.

"I have to admit, quantity does count," the lady from Cleveland said. "It's one thing to eat oysters as a delicacy, but it's another thing to chow down on them."

"I think there's gourmet oyster eaters and then there's oyster eaters," said the Texan.

The notion that oysters are an aphrodisiac seems rather quaint to modern minds. But then again, we don't eat oysters like they used to. Casanova had 50 with his nightcap every evening, and his libido was legendary.

In 1989, the Food and Drug Administration issued a report stating that the powers of most so-called aphrodisiacs were based in folklore, not fact. The scientists' explanation of why oysters are considered an aphrodisiac was particularly interesting.

"Many ancient peoples believed in the so-called 'law of similarity', reasoning that an object resembling genitalia may possess sexual powers. Ginseng, rhinoceros horn, and oysters are three classical examples..." But according to the report, there might be some scientific basis for the idea that oysters were aphrodisiacs: "Oysters are particularly esteemed as sex aids, possibly gaining their reputation at a time when their contribution of zinc to the nutritionally deficient diets of the day could improve overall health and so lead to an increased sex drive."

But it's difficult to test aphrodisiacs, mainly because of the placebo effect. "The mind is the most potent aphrodisiac there is," says John Renner, founder of the Consumer Health Information Research Institute. In short, if you believe that oysters are an aphrodisiac, they're likely to have that effect. The FDA laments that there's been a shortage of studies on the subject. You can contribute to the cause of science by conducting your own experiments at home.

But while exploring the connection between sex and oysters promises hours of fun, the subject of oyster fatalities is not at all amusing.

On July 9, 2001, the Center for Science in the Public Interest, joined by Roger Berkowitz, president of Boston's Legal Sea Foods, held a press conference in Washington to announce the Serving Safer Shellfish campaign. The campaign urges oyster lovers not to eat raw, untreated Gulf Coast oysters. It also calls for restaurants, retailers and seafood wholesalers to sell shellfish harvested in the colder waters of New England or the Pacific Northwest, or Gulf oysters that have been sterilized. The group released a report, "Death on the Half Shell," that blamed government inaction for the more than 135 deaths from contaminated oysters since 1989.

So why would anybody in their right mind keep eating Gulf Coast oysters after a warning like that? Well, it helps to remember that Michael Jacobson, the head of the Center for Science in the Public Interest, has also spoken out against beer, coffee, Mexican food and buttered popcorn. The teetotaling vegetarian microbiologist, who once worked with Ralph Nader, also favors the enactment of the "Twinkie Tax," a special added tax on unhealthy food, and reportedly has said that instead of neighborhood taverns, "They should develop an alternative for people to socialize -- a real fun coffeehouse. Maybe a carrot-juice house."

It's not very difficult to figure out why Jacobson should be joined in his condemnation of Gulf Coast seafood by the New England and Pacific Northwest seafood industries. If they can scare people out of eating cheap native Gulf Coast oysters, they stand to sell a lot more of their expensive farm-raised ones.

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