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Sex, Death and Oysters

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

As I draw my cocktail fork across it, the delicate creature contracts almost imperceptibly. Then I stab the quivering mouthful and slide it onto my tongue. The flavor is salty, a little metallic and surprisingly sweet. There's a subtle nuttiness in the chewy bit that surrounds the foot.

Eating raw oysters is exquisitely perverse. If they're freshly shucked, as they ought to be, you're putting the mollusk into your mouth while it's still alive. The wonderfully slick texture, delicate briny flavor and beachfront aroma make it easy to understand how oysters came to be associated with the tenderest portion of the female anatomy and thus considered an aphrodisiac.

But since a bacterium called Vibrio vulnificus found in raw Gulf Coast oysters poisons a few people every year, I also find myself contemplating my mortality as I eat a dozen on the half shell. It's a heady appetizer, each pale oyster so languid and vulnerable, brimming with images of sex and death.

Some 430 oyster boats are working in Galveston Bay this season, more than double last year.
Troy Fields
Some 430 oyster boats are working in Galveston Bay this season, more than double last year.
The keepers are piled on deck, and the empty shells and small oysters are shoved overboard.
Troy Fields
The keepers are piled on deck, and the empty shells and small oysters are shoved overboard.
Buoys mark privately held oyster leases.
Troy Fields
Buoys mark privately held oyster leases.
Game warden Bobby Kana measures oysters. Anything under three inches is illegal in Texas.
Troy Fields
Game warden Bobby Kana measures oysters. Anything under three inches is illegal in Texas.
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.
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

The local oysters are incredibly sweet this year -- so sweet that such famous Louisiana oyster restaurants as Drago's Seafood in Metairie are serving Texas oysters alongside the Louisiana shellfish. "Texas oysters are the best right now," Croatian-American oysterman Drago Cvitanovich told me when I stopped by his Louisiana restaurant last December.

I always assumed Texas oysters came from a distant and pristine lagoon down past Corpus Christi somewhere. Given the heavy tanker traffic and the refineries hugging the coast along Texas City, you don't think of seafood thriving near the Ship Channel. I've always figured if there were any fish under there, they probably had three eyes.

So I was more than a little surprised to learn that, right now, acre for underwater acre, the most productive oyster reefs in North America are in Galveston Bay.


The waters of the bay are calm, the sky is blue, and the water temperature is hovering at 60 degrees -- perfect oyster weather. The Trpanj is a typical oyster boat, wide across the middle with a huge foredeck; it looks like a barge with an upturned nose. When the boat's dredge, a five-foot-long metal rake and net contraption, is hauled up, oysters and debris are tipped over onto the work table. The Mexican deckhands sort the "keepers" out of the gray jumble of empty shells and undersized oysters, throwing the legal ones into a growing pile on deck. Then they shove the empty shells and too-small oysters overboard.

The oysters are plentiful, and spirits are high. But things suddenly turn somber when a Texas Parks and Wildlife patrol boat pulls up alongside the Trpanj and two uniformed game wardens jump aboard. Warden Bobby Kana comes forward wearing wraparound sunglasses and a tough-guy frown.

The Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, which publishes a map showing where it's legal to harvest oysters, polices the oyster-fishing business. There's a large public oyster reef in the middle of the bay where anyone with a license can harvest oysters. Then there are four "conditional" zones, all of which are closed today because of excessive rainfall. (Runoff after a big rain is a major source of pollution in the bay.)

Oyster leases are areas leased from the state by private companies; marked by buoys, they're off-limits except to permitted boats. Areas close to shore and most of the upper bay are closed for oystering at all times.

Everybody in the business knows the rules. But the unprecedented number of oyster boats working Galveston Bay this year is putting tremendous pressure on the system. Nerves are frayed, and there's tension between the locals and boats from other waters.

"Who is the captain here?" Kana asks. Captain René Rivas introduces himself.

"Captain, you are working a leased area. Do you have a permit to be on this lease?" Rivas doesn't have the right paperwork. The other game warden accompanies the captain while he goes to get the boat's oyster license. Meanwhile, Kana produces a strange, square, C-shaped contraption and starts using it to measure the oysters in the pile on deck.

The Trpanj, which is named after a village in Croatia, is owned by the same Croatian-American family that owns Misho's Oyster Company, the largest oyster processor on Galveston Bay. They also own the oyster lease. So I'm confused by what the game wardens are doing here.

"It's Misho's boat and Misho's oyster lease, right?" I ask Kana.

"Yeah, but the permit hasn't been filed," he says. "And the lease is not properly marked."

"Are the oysters the right size?" I ask.

"Most of them are okay," he says. He holds up an offender that slips through the measuring device. "Two-and-a-half-inch oysters are very popular for oysters on the half shell," Kana says. "But anything under three inches is illegal in Texas."

"You must be having a busy day," I say, looking out over the bay. "I've heard that there are 430 oyster boats working on Galveston Bay this year."

"That's about right," says the game warden. There were 170 oyster boats on Galveston Bay last year. The huge jump is due to the perfect conditions.

In Louisiana, they might make 30 or 40 bags in a day's dredging. In Galveston Bay, boats have been topping out at 150 bags for most of the season. Texas oysters are being shipped to Florida and the Carolinas, where they're resold to other seafood concerns. Few of the end consumers on the East Coast ever realize they're eating Texas oysters.

Kana ordered all of the Trpanj's oysters dumped overboard and fined the boat more than $250, Misho Ivic tells me later.

"Why wasn't the lease properly marked?" I ask him.

"The thieves cut your markers first," Ivic fumes, "so they don't get caught stealing your oysters."


It was last December when I first encountered burly Croatian-American oysterman Misho Ivic and his son Michael (English for Misho). The Ivics brought their oyster boats to Galveston 30 years ago from Louisiana, where Ivic's wife's Croatian-American family also works in the oyster business.

We met for lunch at the popular oysterman hangout Gilhooley's in San Leon, where we were joined by a marine biologist named Dr. Sammy Ray. An animated 85-year-old with wispy white hair and glasses that seem too big for his face, Ray, a professor emeritus at Texas A&M at Galveston, is one of the foremost authorities on Gulf oysters. He had a bowl of gumbo, and Ivic had "oysters Gilhooley," which are smoked oysters on the half shell with shrimp on top. I had a dozen on the half shell.

I'd arrived with a few misconceptions. As far as I understood it, pollution had wiped out most of America's native oyster reefs around mid-century. For example, at its height in the mid-1800s, the annual harvest of Virginia's Chesapeake Bay was measured in the millions of bushels. Today it produces about 1 percent of its historic peak production.

Conservationists and the states that border Chesapeake Bay are now attempting to rebuild the oyster fishery through tougher controls on pollution, strict limits on oystermen, and the possible introduction of an oyster species from Asia. I'd asked the Texas oyster experts to meet me so I could learn what kind of conservation projects were going on here.

"When was the peak harvest of the Galveston Bay oyster fishery?" I ask the marine biologist.

"Right now," Ray says with a wide grin. "I predict this will be the biggest season we've ever seen. Misho's Oyster Company alone will outproduce the entire Chesapeake Bay this year." I look at the oysterman in puzzlement.

"I agree," says Ivic. "And it's going to keep getting better. In the 1950s, there were boats dredging the oyster reefs and hauling off the oyster shells to build highways. Since they threw those guys out of Galveston Bay, the oyster reefs have grown 40 percent."

"But what about the pollution?" I ask.

"Pollution isn't a problem for oysters," says Ray. In fact, oysters eat the algae that sewage produces, filtering the water and making it cleaner. You just don't want to eat oysters that come from areas near pollution sources.

None of this is making any sense to me.

"I'll tell you a story," Ray begins. "In 1947, the oil companies were being sued for $30 million to 40 million for damage to the Louisiana oyster beds. We were told that Gulf oysters would soon disappear. The supposition at the time was the oil drilling was killing the oysters." Two teams of scientists set to work, one for each side of the lawsuit.

After two years, both sides came to the same conclusion, he says. If there was oil in the water and the water was salty, the oysters died. If there was oil in the water and the water wasn't salty, the oysters did fine. It wasn't oil or pollution that was killing the oysters; it was too much saltwater.

A hundred years ago, the Mississippi River broke into a lot of little distributaries that flowed into the salt marshes of western Louisiana. There were oyster reefs all over the Gulf in those days. But then a federal flood-control project built levees on the Mississippi River. The levees succeeded in controlling flooding, but they also cut off the flow of freshwater to the marshes and to the offshore oyster reefs.

Oysters can tolerate fairly high salinity, Ray explains, but their predators, mainly oyster drills, starfish and a disease called dermo, all thrive in saltwater. So you need a steady supply of freshwater flowing in to keep the salinity down and the pests away. Oyster reefs locate themselves where freshwater and saltwater meet. If you have a drought year, the oysters can survive. But after three years or so of high salinity, the oyster population gets wiped out.

The perfect scenario for oyster growth, Ray tells me, is a dry spring, which gives the oyster larvae the slightly elevated salinity they need, followed by a wet summer and fall, which drops the salinity and keeps the oyster's predators away. And that's part of the reason for Galveston Bay's remarkable oyster harvest this year. Not only have the oyster reefs benefited from years of recovery and better water quality, but last year we had the ideal weather pattern.


At a holiday party in a Montrose apartment, two women, both of them new to Houston, are talking about the disgusting waters of the Gulf of Mexico. One is from San Francisco and the other is from Cleveland. How could anybody swim in the oil blobs and flotsam of that ugly brown water? the San Franciscan asks. I smile and shake my head amiably. Personally, I swim in that water every summer, and I have marinated my children in it for most of their lives. But if Galveston is too unsightly for the newcomers' beachgoing tastes, well, then "bless their hearts," as we say in Texas.

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."

"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.

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.

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.

Efforts of the FDA's Interstate Shellfish Sanitation Conference, a group of federal and state regulators and shellfish industry representatives, to reduce the number of V. vulnificus cases haven't made much progress. Some members want to mandate postharvest treatment of Gulf Coast oysters by freezing, flash sterilization or washing to reduce the disease during the high-risk time of year. Others favor increasing the supply of treated oysters to provide more consumers with a less risky option. Unfortunately, the treated oysters don't taste all that great raw.

The Gulf Coast oyster industry argues that the education of the "at-risk consumer" is the best way to combat V. vulnificus infections. The vast majority of consumers have nothing to worry about and shouldn't be deprived of their right to eat regular raw oysters, they argue.

But educating consumers has proved difficult, as so little is known. The first reported case of V. vulnificus illness was in 1979. And some misunderstandings about the bacterium have been spread by the media. In "The Perpetual Oyster," a five-part series of articles about oysters in Forbes, Charles Dubow writes, "Although it is fairly easy to spot a 'bad' oyster -- not only do they look dry and shriveled but usually smell something like rotten eggs -- too many people over time have wished they had paid just a little more attention to what they were eating. Bad oysters are full of bacteria (Vibrio Vulnificus for those who care)…"

Before the invention of refrigeration, Dubow goes on to say, it was best not to eat oysters in months without an "r." He concludes, "Well, these days that is no longer a problem and one can eat oysters with impunity 12 months a year -- but just be sure to smell them first."

I wonder if Charles Dubow is still alive. If so, it's not because of his knowledge of oysters. The stinky, shriveled oyster he describes is more likely one that has died in transit. In fact, V. vulnificus is an odorless, tasteless and completely undetectable marine organism that thrives in shallow coastal waters in warm weather, and it's present in both good oysters and ones that have gone "bad." Nor does V. vulnificus have anything to do with pollution or red tide, as many people seem to believe.

It may be safe to eat raw oysters all year long if you don't have a compromised immune system. The problem is, few people know exactly what shape their immune systems are in. And other factors can have an effect. For example, while stomach acids usually kill much of V. vulnificus, some common medications, such as antacids, allow the bacteria to multiply. Antacid users are now considered "at risk" and are urged to avoid raw oysters.

So where does an enlightened food lover draw the risk-and-reward line when it comes to raw Gulf Coast oysters?

On the two extremes, there are the oyster guys who want to sell you oysters all year round regardless of the increased bacterium levels and the fact that summer oysters don't taste very good. And then there's the Center for Science in the Public Interest, which insists that all Gulf Coast oysters should be sterilized. The truth probably lies somewhere in the middle. And this is the time of year to make up your mind. "We see a cluster of cases every year in late March and early April, when the water heats up again," says Gary Heideman, who mans the Seafood Safety Desk at the Texas Department of Health.

Heideman has some good advice on the subject of raw oysters. "Even though Vibrio vulnificus has no effect on most healthy people, there is always some risk," he says. "But you can improve your odds." Heideman suggests that if you want to eat raw oysters with a minimum of risk, then keep an eye on the water temperature. Little or no V. vulnificus is detectable when the water temperature at the point of collection is below 65 degrees. Generally, that happens between the beginning of December and the middle of March. (You can check the exact temperature in the marine forecast at www.weatherunderground.com.)

Based on Heideman's advice, I've decided to treat oysters as a seasonal food. I'll eat raw oysters in the winter, when the glycogen makes them sweet and the bacteria are scarce. When the water warms up in the spring and the bacteria start to swarm, I'll switch to cooked oysters. In the summer, after the oyster has spawned, it has little flavor or substance left. And that's also when the bacteria are the highest. So I might as well observe the "never eat oysters in months without an 'r'" rule.

But it's good to remember that even among the at-risk population, very few people die from eating oysters. Just to put the odds in perspective, Florida health officials and the USDA state: "In 1992, an estimated 71,000 Floridians with liver damage consumed raw oysters and nine died from Vulnificus infections. Four of the victims suffered from cirrhosis and a fifth had a history of heavy drinking."

The odds of dying from eating an oyster are around a million to one.


"People are constantly climbing a wall of worry," says Ray in exasperation as he eats another bowl of gumbo. "First they worried about pollution. Now that there's no pollution, they're worried about eating the fish."

It's three months later, and I've asked Ray and Ivic to meet me at Gilhooley's for lunch again. I want to ask them a few more questions about the future of the Texas oyster industry. It's the middle of March, and when I checked the water temperature this morning, it was hovering at 65 degrees. So I skip the raw oysters and order the oysters Gilhooley.

Before I dismiss the subject of pollution, I want to be sure I understand the condition of Galveston Bay. "When I arrived here in the 1970s, there weren't any crabs or fish north of Barbour's Cut," Ivic says. "It was dead water. Today there are crabs and fish all the way up the Ship Channel."

"There are fish and crabs all the way up to the port of Houston," says Ray.

"Would you eat fish that came from the Ship Channel?" I ask him.

"Sure, I would," he says, citing the Department of Health's fishing advisories that do allow limited consumption of fish from some parts of the Ship Channel despite continuing evidence of dioxin and PCBs.

"People would have you believe that Galveston Bay is a polluted cesspool," says Ray. "But that's a lot of nonsense."

"Galveston Bay is the cleanest it's been in 30 years," says Ivic.

He's right -- and the reduced pollution is due to improved wastewater treatment facilities and changes in the rules regarding discharge, thanks in large part to the Clean Water Act of 1970. Scott Jones, water and sediment quality coordinator for the Galveston Bay Estuary Program, notes that dissolved oxygen rates, which were at unhealthy levels (below four milligrams per liter) back in 1969, had increased to healthy levels (six milligrams per liter) by the late '90s.

"We always fight the perception that the bay is polluted, but the reality is that the water quality overall is good," says Jones. "There are still problems with dioxin and PCBs in the Ship Channel, but there are people working on that, too."

"Galveston Bay covers 600 square miles," says Heideman. "About 10 percent of the upper bay is under fishing advisories." The culprit is mainly rainwater runoff contaminated with automotive fluids and excess fertilizer from residential areas. "There are problems," Heideman agrees, "but putting an area under a fishing advisory when you never even had fish there before is a good problem."

"The vast majority of Galveston Bay meets our criteria," he says. "And the oyster reefs are definitely improving. It's a very healthy situation."


No one is really sure exactly what happened to the native oyster reefs of Europe and the rest of the United States. Nor is there a consensus about what we should be doing to protect the oyster reefs of the Gulf Coast.

"People worry that dredging is damaging the reef," Ray says, "but it's not. It's creating new surfaces for oyster sprats to cling to." People worry that we're overfishing, he says, but that's not a problem either. There are a lot of oysters in areas that can't be harvested, and each oyster lays millions and millions of eggs, so there are always plenty of oyster larvae in the water. People worry about pollution, but that's under control, too.

"The real threat to the oyster reefs in Galveston Bay is the diversion of freshwater for flood-control projects," Ray says. "If you want to save the oysters, people in Houston need to stop building houses in the floodplain."

But Ray is the first to point out that the fate of the oyster reefs is mainly dependent upon nature itself. If we get three consecutive years of drought, the oysters will be wiped out no matter what we do. And if we get a couple more years of the same kind of weather we had this season, Galveston Bay could become one of the most famous oyster reefs in North America.

Cooked Oyster Recipes

The prime season for raw oysters is drawing to a close. Here are a few classic cooked oyster recipes to tide you over until next season.

Oyster Nachos

(Adapted from Nuevo Tex-Mex, by David Garrido and Robb Walsh)

Chef David Garrido of Jeffrey’s in Austin invented this crispy fried-oyster nacho, which is now found on menus all over Texas.

Vegetable oil for frying
16 freshly shucked oysters
Buttermilk for dredging
Flour for dredging
1/2 cup mayonnaise
1 teaspoon habanero hot sauce
16 nacho chips
1/2 cup pico de gallo (or chunky salsa)

In a small skillet, heat a one-inch depth of vegetable oil to 375 degrees. Put the buttermilk and flour into two shallow bowls. Soak the oysters in buttermilk, then dip them in flour. Fry each oyster for 45 seconds to one minute, or until lightly brown. Transfer oysters to paper towels to drain.

Mix the habanero sauce with the mayonnaise. To serve, put a teaspoonful of pico de gallo on each chip, then a fried oyster and top with a half teaspoon of the habanero mayonnaise. Yields 16 nachos.

Drago’s Grilled Oysters on the Half Shell

They use a high-gas flame at Drago’s in Metairie so the shells get well charred. The results are spectacular.

1/2 pound butter, melted
2 tablespoons chopped garlic
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon ground black pepper
3 dozen oysters in the shell
Parmesan cheese for garnish
Chopped parsley for garnish

Combine the garlic, salt and pepper with the hot butter. Place the unopened oysters on a gas grill. (Frozen oysters work fine for this.) When the shells pop open, remove the top shell. Ladle butter mixture over the oyster on the half shell and place on the grill for three to five minutes or until cooked through. When cooked, sprinkle with a little Parmesan and chopped parsley. Yields 36.

Angels on Horseback

This is one of those cute Old English names for cooked oysters wrapped in bacon. If you put three of these bacon-wrapped oysters on a wooden skewer and dip it in flour before you broil it, the dish becomes “oysters en brochette.”

12 shucked oysters, drained
1/2 teaspoon lemon pepper
6 slices bacon, cut into halves
1 tablespoon chopped parsley
Toasted bread slices
Tabasco sauce (optional)
Lemon wedges (optional)

Sprinkle each oyster with lemon pepper. Wrap the bacon half around the oyster, and secure it with a toothpick. Place the oysters on a broiler pan. Broil about four inches from the burner for eight to ten minutes or until the bacon is turning crisp on all sides. Serve two or three on each slice of toast. Garnish with parsley. Add hot sauce and lemon juice if desired.

Hangtown Fry

Two different legends are told about this oyster omelet invented in the California hamlet of Hangtown. Both agree that eggs and oysters were among the most expensive foodstuffs of the Gold Rush era. One has it that this was the last meal of a condemned man; the other claims that this was the most expensive dish a gold miner who just struck it rich could think of.

2 slices bacon
6 oysters, shucked
1 tablespoon unsalted butter
3 eggs, lightly beaten
3 or 4 dashes Tabasco sauce
Salt and pepper

Fry the bacon until crisp. Transfer to paper towels to drain. In a clean skillet melt the butter over medium heat. Add the oysters and sauté for about 1 1/2 minutes, or until they just plump up. Crumble the bacon and toss it with the oysters. Pour the eggs into the pan. Season with Tabasco sauce, salt and pepper, to taste, and cook for five minutes or until the eggs are set, turning the cooked eggs to let the uncooked eggs run underneath. Transfer to a plate and serve immediately with sourdough toast.

You can reach Robb Walsh at robb@robbwalsh.com

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