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But last year that law was expanded to include all nonnative oyster species, and its enforcement was extended to include seafood dealers and restaurants. The idea that somebody is going to dump oysters that sell for two dollars apiece into Galveston Bay seems a little silly to me. And why would such a ban affect seafood restaurants in Dallas and El Paso, hundreds of miles from the water? But when I voiced my skepticism at the seminar, another concern was raised.
"California banned our oysters!" someone in the room shouted. Suddenly, I understood what was going on. In April of 2003, the state of California enacted a ban on Gulf oysters harvested from April through October because of deaths and illnesses from vibrio vulnificus, a naturally occurring bacteria found in summer oysters from the Gulf.
Houston, TX 77056
Oceanaire Seafood Room Dozen oysters: $25.20
Jumbo shrimp cocktail: $14.95
Bowl of clam chowder: $6.95
Tomato juice cocktail: 95¢
"Nora" Albarino, Rias Baixas wine: $38
McCormick & Schmick's Hours: 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. daily.
McCormick & Schmick's 1151 Uptown Park Blvd., 713-840-7900.
Gulf oystermen are cynical about California's ban because it targets only Gulf of Mexico oysters. A related bacteria, Vibrio parahaemolyticus in Washington State oysters, was responsible for 116 reported cases of illness last summer.
According to the Journal of the American Medical Association, in August 1997 the largest outbreak of Vibrio parahaemolyticus infections in North America was traced to summertime consumption of raw oysters harvested from California and the Pacific Northwest. In that outbreak, 209 people fell ill and one died.
The fact is, regardless of where they're harvested, oysters are fat and sweet in the winter and full of nasty stuff in the summer. If California really wanted to safeguard the public health, they would ban restaurants from serving half-shell oysters in months without an "R." But by eliminating only the cheap Gulf Coast oysters from the market, California is actually running an economic protection scam for their own high-priced oysters.
Texas authorities deny that the law, or its new enforcement parameters, have any economic or retaliatory motivation. But West Coast wags are calling it an "oyster war." Our waiter at Oceanaire summed up the prevailing wisdom: "California banned Gulf oysters in the summer, so Texas banned Pacific oysters to get even."
Limited to the native (C. virginica) species, Oceanaire Seafood Room and McCormick & Schmick's have put together an oyster bar made up entirely of C. virginica oysters, but from distant cold-water regions. These two oyster bars provide Houstonians with a fascinating opportunity to taste C. virginica species from all over the country and compare them with our own Gulf oysters -- although you have to do your comparison in two different restaurants.
Minnesota and Oregon seafood chains have every right to refuse to serve Gulf oysters. But when they come down here and talk trash about our local products, they are just being rude. In the prime of their season, which runs roughly from Christmas to Easter, Gulf oysters are fresher, plumper, sweeter and by far a better bargain than the pathetically minuscule specimens these restaurants are importing from the East Coast.
But don't take my word for it. Go eat a sampler plate of oysters at Oceanaire Seafood Room or McCormick & Schmick's. Then stop by Willie G's on Post Oak, Magnolia Grill on Richmond or Joyce's on Westheimer and get a dozen Galveston Bay oysters. Let me know which ones you find most satisfying.
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