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Bivalve Season Is Here

Houston restaurants are ready to get shucking.

 Sex, Death and Oysters

The oyster crop is still not back to where it was before the droughts of 2010 and 2011.

'He first selected the smallest one...and then bowed his head as though he were saying grace. Opening his mouth very wide, he struggled for a moment, after which all was over. I shall never forget the comic look of despair he cast upon the other five over-occupied shells. I asked him how he felt. 'Profoundly grateful,' he said, 'as if I had swallowed a small baby.'"

According to a companion, William Makepeace Thackeray uttered the above in 1852 when presented with a half-dozen six- to eight-inch oysters, a common size at the time.

Gilhooley's specializes in oysters cooked any way you like them.
Daniel Kramer
Gilhooley's specializes in oysters cooked any way you like them.
From top left: Hibiscus-infused tequila agua fresca; chimichurri-grilled Texas redfish; fruit margarita; mangalitsa chicken tamale topped with Oaxacan mole
Mai Pham
From top left: Hibiscus-infused tequila agua fresca; chimichurri-grilled Texas redfish; fruit margarita; mangalitsa chicken tamale topped with Oaxacan mole

"As I ate the oysters with their strong taste of the sea and their faint metallic taste that the cold white wine washed away, leaving only the sea taste and the succulent texture, and as I drank their cold liquid from each shell and washed it down with the crisp taste of the wine, I lost the empty feeling and began to be happy and to make plans."

Ernest Hemingway, A Moveable Feast

Men have long waxed poetic about the oyster, and why not? It's one of the few foods we eat while it's still alive, and we eat the entire creature, entrails and all. Oysters don't hunt; they wait for the ocean currents to bring food. They produce objects we wear as jewelry, and research has confirmed they possess aphrodisiac properties.

Oh yeah, and when plucked from the ocean in its prime, an oyster — delicate, plump and ever so slimy — will taste of briny sea water and rich butter and will sensually melt on your tongue.

With oyster season officially under way as of November 1, I've been thinking about fresh, raw bivalves for weeks now. I got the scoop on the upcoming season from local oyster experts and chatted with a few chefs and restaurateurs to find out where you can get fresh oysters straight from our gulf waters.

"The prognosis for our season is incredible because of all the fresh water," says Tom Tollett, chef and owner of Tommy's Restaurant and Oyster Bar and an activist with the Galveston Bay Foundation. Tollett and others are excited about the large amount of rain that's fallen so far this year — it's been flushing water into the gulf from as far north as Dallas — because it should contribute to a stellar oyster season.

The oyster crop is still not back to where it was before the droughts of 2010 and 2011, when the salinity in the gulf reached record levels and predators that thrive in saltier conditions made our bays their home. Still, Tollett and his fellow chefs are optimistic about the season, which lasts until April 30.

"I hear they're supposed to be good this year," local fishmonger PJ Stoops says, though he admits he's not as in tune with what's happening in oyster reefs as he was when he sold gulf bycatch at Louisiana Foods. "They'll taste good, but the harvest might not be much of anything. Let's wait until February and talk about how good they are."

Stoops says that while the season officially began on November 1, the date is arbitrary, and the quality and availability of oysters depend largely on the weather and rainfall. If the water stays too warm past November 1, the early harvests will be no good, while a cooler-than-average September can mean the season will peak in November.

"These days there aren't many things that have to be seasonal," Stoops says. "But oysters do."

A word that has come up frequently during gulf oyster season in the past several years is "appellation," which refers to where, specifically, the oysters come from in the bay. In the past, there was no such thing as "gulf oysters," as that title was too broad. Recently, there's been a revival of "gulf appellation oysters," which come from specific reefs with names like "Pepper Grove," "Possum Pass" or "Todd's Dump." Appellation oysters are so popular, in fact, that Tommy's has partnered with the Galveston Bay Foundation for the past several years to host gulf appellation oyster tastings.

Before you assume that an oyster tasting sounds boring and redundant, talk to any oyster aficionado, who will tell you that the bivalves have a sense of "merroir," much like wine has a terroir. Merroir refers to the differences in flavor, texture and appearance among oysters from different reefs. Sometimes the differences are so pronounced that you can detect unique flavor profiles in specimens from different ends of the same reef.

"For the past 100 years, we've basically not really tagged oysters with appellations," Tollett explains. "That's just been in the last few years. We would like to have more oysters coming from these appellations, because it gives them more credibility."

That's interesting and all, but why would the humble oyster need more credibility?

Easy, says Tollett: "They're our keystone species in the bay."

He explains that an oyster can filter as much as 50 gallons of water a day, which helps keep the oceans clean. The cleaner the water in the bay is to begin with, the cleaner our oysters will be. And if our oysters are happy and healthy, so are our shrimp and fish. Tollett believes that drawing attention to the uniqueness of oysters can help the gulf as a whole. He even has a motto to get his point across:

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