Keep On Shuckin'
They put a couple of ice cubes on top of each raw oyster at Gilhooley's to keep it cold. I push the ice aside and squeeze a few drops of lemon juice onto my next victim. The naked shellfish wiggles helplessly on the little fork as I lower it wickedly into my mouth. There is no flavor quite so delicate -- a little briny with a fleshy sweetness -- and no texture quite so slippery and sensual on the tongue. Raw oysters are one of the most exquisite culinary experiences on the planet. I will continue slurping them until shortly before I die. (And you're probably thinking that might not be long from now.)
The lawsuit stemming from the death of Mike Matthews, a Houston barber who ate an oyster contaminated by the bacteria Vibrio vulnificus (see "Flesh-Eating Oysters," by George Flynn, March 14), has prompted a lot of discussion on the subject of oysters lately. In a recent letter to the editor, Jim Yarbray says he has a one-word reaction whenever he sees somebody eating raw oysters: dumbass. Millions of Americans have come to the same conclusion. People in the United States don't eat oysters like they used to, raw or fried. Total oyster sales in the last few years are running half of what they were in 1989. Yarbray sums up the cautious attitude: "Eating a delicacy is not worth a life," he says, "no matter how small the risk."
I don't agree, so count me as one of the aforementioned dumbasses. About 20 of the approximately 20 million raw oyster-eaters in this country die each year for their culinary pleasure, so the odds of expiring from eating an oyster are a million to one. Eating raw oysters is well worth the gamble, in my book. It's like the lottery in reverse: You win every time you play -- unless you hit the jackpot and die. I also will gladly roll the dice with juicy, rare hamburgers -- like the one I just ordered at Gilhooley's.
A reader named Ken Ryback recommended this funky bar after I complained about the difficulty of finding a rare hamburger these days (see "Home of the Squealer," by Robb Walsh, January 31). "If you go to Gilhooley's on FM 517 in San Leon and ask for a rare hamburger, they ask you, 'Cold rare or warm rare?' " he wrote. "Order it warm; the cold rare is easily healed with a Band-Aid."
I started falling in love with Gilhooley's as I pulled into the unpaved oyster-shell parking lot. The outdoor bar, with its ramshackle patio furniture, is overgrown with vegetation. The interior is all worn woodwork and old furniture, the rafters seemingly held together by the license plates that cover them. Children are forbidden here, no doubt in part because of the risqué artwork and "show us your tits" photos that grace the walls. But it's the menu that made my blood race. Gilhooley's Raw Bar may be the last place in the country where you can get a dozen raw oysters and a rare hamburger for lunch. Maybe they ought to call this the Double Dumbass Combo.
In the pursuit of pleasure, you probably take bigger risks than eating these potentially lethal foodstuffs all the time. Ever go skiing, bicycling, horseback riding or boating? You dumbass! Don't you know you could die from those activities? According to the National Safety Council, the chances of dying in a boating accident (one in 5,092) are much higher than the one-in-a-million odds of dying from eating oysters. Do you consider the risk of drowning every time you go swimming? Why not? It's a hundred times more likely that you will die from drowning (one in 7,972) than I will die from eating oysters.
It's a dangerous life we lead, when you think about it. But I laugh in the face of danger. Especially in months with an r when I am not taking antacids.
Vibrio vulnificus, the bacteria that killed Mike Matthews, is very common in the Gulf of Mexico. You could get infected by stepping on a sharp shell while walking on the beach. The bacteria is present to some extent in every oyster in the gulf. In the winter, the level is fairly low; in the summer, it gets much higher. Hence, the folk wisdom about not eating oysters in a month without an r. Researchers are trying to determine at what level the bacteria should be considered dangerous, but this is complicated by the fact that the vast majority of people have no reaction to it at any level. The at-risk group includes people who have liver trouble, immune system disorders and, it is now suspected, those taking antacids.
The antacid connection was noticed by researchers at the Food and Drug Administration's Gulf Coast Seafood Laboratory. Under normal circumstances, your stomach acids kills Vibrio vulnificus, but when you neutralize those acids, it seems, you give the bacteria a much better chance of surviving the voyage into your intestines. This finding makes me wonder if antacids aren't a factor in other cases of bacteria-related food poisoning. And it leaves us with a chicken-or-the-egg question to ponder: If you get food poisoning, is it the bacteria or the antacids that are to blame?
My rare cheeseburger is delivered by a sexy, tough-talking waitress wearing a tube top that leaves her midriff exposed -- the better to show off her belly-button piercing. The burger has been cooked over a wood fire, and the bottom bun is soaked through with meat juices. I load it up with the tomato, onion, lettuce and pickles provided, then cut it in half. It's bright red inside. There's no mayo on the bread, and no mustard, ketchup or any other sauce. I want to ask the waitress for something to spread on the bun, but she's nowhere in sight. I take a bite while I wait to get her attention and suddenly forget all about the mayo. Gilhooley's rare cheeseburger is so juicy, all it needs is a little salt and pepper.
I've tried to look up the odds of dying from eating rare hamburgers, but I can't find that statistic. The Centers for Disease Control does report that every year in the United States foodborne pathogens cause 76 million people to get sick, 325,000 people to go to the hospital and 5,200 people to die. Food that makes people sick is particularly abhorrent to Americans. The public outcry following the tainted-hamburger deaths of a few years ago caused changes in cooking, inspection and hygiene practices in restaurants across the country. Some think these changes were for the better, but I think the quest for sterility has gone too far. Corporate restaurant management types are insisting that employees wear plastic gloves while throwing pizza dough (which doesn't work), and health department restrictions have made hand-formed hamburger patties almost nonexistent. Paradoxically, it was one of those perennial winners of the health department inspection game, a fast food franchise, that set off the tainted-hamburger scare in the first place.
"What Americans really want are artisanal foods that have been untouched by human hands," remarks New Orleans food writer Pableaux Johnson. And oddly, few of the people I've shared that remark with see any contradiction in it. As a culture, we no longer seem to make any connection between handmade, artisanal foods and the hands that make them. And now we're attempting to force the rest of the world to adopt our ideas about food safety. The American effort to raise international sanitary standards and require pasteurization of all milk products has long been seen as a threat to French cheese makers and European culinary culture in general. At the heart of the debate are completely different attitudes about food.
"Americans shouldn't eat fromages au lait cru," an Alsatian wine maker once chided me when I bemoaned the fact that we can't get these lively raw milk cheeses in the States. He wasn't kidding: Raw milk cheese that tests high in the dangerous Listeria monocytogenes bacteria is detected quite often in Europe, he explained. And people sometimes die from eating such cheese. In a notorious outbreak in Switzerland, Vacherin Mont d'Or cheese, made with unpasteurized milk, caused 34 deaths between 1983 and 1987. While efforts should be made to keep the food supply reasonably safe in Europe, some degree of uncertainty is considered a fact of life there, the Alsatian maintained. But if an American ever died from eating French cheese, the repercussions would be horrific. Americans should stick with antiseptic cheeses that come in plastic wrappers, he thought.
Listeria monocytogenes is actually more common in meats than in cheese, European cheese makers contend, and indeed the naturally occurring bacteria has been identified in hot dogs, coleslaw and pasteurized milk. "This is really a war of norms and contrasting tastes, not about scientifically proven health and sanitary issues," Antoine Boissel, director of a French cheese company, told Time magazine. "The French hear American health arguments in favor of pasteurization, and then ask why it is the U.S. remains the world champion in reported listeriosis cases." (Maybe it's the antacids?)
My dining companion has his own observations about European and American food culture. He thinks, for instance, that Gilhooley's is the perfect place to bring visiting French intellectuals. "They always find some little detail to complain about at Cafe Annie," he says. "But they love it when they think you're feeding them the local peasant food."
He isn't impressed, however, with Gilhooley's shrimp gumbo, which he refers to as "Protestant gumbo" because of its exceedingly mild flavor. The shrimp and sausage étouffée, too, is long on sausage but short on other flavors. The daily lunch special, spaghetti and meatballs, doesn't look very tempting either. And I'm afraid there isn't much else on the short menu at Gilhooley's to recommend.
But if you're one of the few, the proud, the dumbasses (or a visiting French intellectual), you'll go to Gilhooley's for the rare find of raw oysters and red burgers. Just be sure to have your doctor check your liver and immune system first, don't take any antacids, and don't blame me if you get sick.
Get the Dining Newsletter
The week's top local food news and events, plus interviews with chefs and restaurant owners, dining tips, and a peek at our print review.