Before You Eat That Oyster: Do You Know About Its Huge Gonad?

40 percent gonad, dude.
40 percent gonad, dude.
Photo courtesy of The General Public

Welcome to Before You Eat That, which broaches all the annoying food subjects that make you highly uncomfortable and that you don't really want to talk about. This is for all you schadenfreude-obsessed killjoys out there. First up, we covered the continuing saga of the is-it-too-smart-to-eat octopus. Today, let's consider the oyster and also its largest organ, the gonad.

It's June, not exactly a month most people associate with sitting around downing a dozen raw oysters, but these are modern times, and modern oysterwomen and men have access to technology that allows for safe summertime fishing and transportation of bivalves. Refrigeration right on the boat allows for oysters to be brought safely to market and restaurants, and a close eye is kept on the health of the waters they're raised in, so that old R rule — eat them only in months that contain an "r" in their spelling — is sort of obsolete.

According to The New York Times, that very R rule may date back to American Indians, who warned settlers about spoiled shellfish, or perhaps much earlier, all the way back to 1599 when an English cookbook called Dyets Dry Dinner apparently advocated skipping oysters because of their tendency to spoil in the heat and, oh yeah, the fact that European flat oysters would've been filled with crunchy little babies during the summer months.

Here in town, you might notice that the oyster is also different in summer. It's flatter and could very well be slimy— "snot bag" was the actual description preferred by an aquaculturist in a recent New York Times article.

That's because of the oyster's gonad, its largest organ, which, when fully developed, actually constitutes up to 40 percent of a bivalve's body mass. Yes, the oyster is essentially the universe's ballsiest creature (unless, of course, you're talking about the sterile and plump triploid oyster, which has no reproductive organs at all —  very emo) and fits right at home in a town like Houston. We even have a new eatery called Balls Out Burger. Kind of explains a lot about the origin of the term Rocky Mountain oysters too.

Anyway, it's just that in summer, warmer waters cause many oysters to go into spawning mode. Thus the gonad releases its mucilaginous contents — i.e., snotbag fun time — while the oyster itself flattens out, kind of like a whoopie cushion released from its fart noise.

"It's actually harder for the oyster companies to make money in the summer because the oysters are much smaller and, you know, they're sold by the pound," Jim Gossen, oyster expert and founder of Houston's largest seafood distributor, Louisiana Foods, says. In that respect, eating oysters in the summer isn't entirely the best deal in the world for consumers either, but Gossen also believes there's a new trend toward smaller, specially farmed oysters anyway, not the big-as-your-face Gulf oysters of yore.

But are they safe to eat in the summer? Pretty much. "I don't tell people to eat them or not eat them in the summer, " Gossen says. "But I do. Chargrilled is a perfect way too."

Before you get all creeped out, there is a major upshot to all the gonad craziness anyway: Researchers have actually found that the oyster gonad is rich in omega-3 fatty acids and it's what makes the bivalve extra-creamy and delicious.

The wood-fired oysters at Xochi are a true delight.
The wood-fired oysters at Xochi are a true delight.
Photo courtesy of Xochi

Where to enjoy? For the diehards out there, head to State of Grace, 3258 Westheimer, where plumper coldwater oysters, including Pickle Points from Canada, and numerous selections from Virginia to Maine will set you back $3.50 each inside the darling oyster bar. Same at Starfish, 191 Heights, a new martini and oyster bar (and full-fledged seafood eatery) from Lee Ellis and Jim Mills in the Heights, where East and West Coast oysters will also cost you about $3.50 each. For the best chargrilled oysters in town, you'll want to head to newly opened Xochi, which tops the bivalves with a piquant dusting of cotija cheese along with mole amarillo and bread crumbs before they go in the wood-fire oven for a jiffy.


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