Look for Gulf Appellation Oysters After the New Year
A Pepper Grove oyster on the half shell at Branch Water Tavern last year.
Photo by Katharine Shilcutt
Wondering where all the Gulf appellation oysters are this year, after the big to-do over Pepper Grove and Ladies' Pass oysters in 2011? Not to worry, says Jim Gossen of Louisiana Seafood, one of the area's largest oyster suppliers. They're right around the corner.
Gossen -- along with noted oyster specialists such as Robb Walsh, Jon Rowley, Tracy Woody and Dr. Sam Ray -- was one of the people responsible for bringing appellations back to Gulf-grown oysters after 100 years of dormancy.
"More than a century ago, there wasn't any such thing as a 'Gulf oyster,' wrote Hanna Raskin in the Dallas Observer in February 2011. "Oysters were offered under specific place names," a tradition which was revived at the first annual Texas Foodways symposium in Galveston that year.
It's not that we're being fussy and fancy down here, though. Not only has a tradition been rightfully revived, Gulf oysters are finally being recognized in the same manner as oysters from other coastal waters across the world.
A map from Jeri's Seafood showing all of the appellated reefs in Texas.
"Oysters from the Pacific Northwest and the Northeast have long been marketed by their bays or place-names of origin, but such names disappeared along the Gulf Coast as our oysters were shipped east as a bulk commodity," noted Houston Chronicle food critic Alison Cook in her appraisal of the new appellation oysters in April 2011.
"Texans who have grown accustomed to being able to buy our local oysters inexpensively, as an undifferentiated mass, may look askance at the higher-priced Texas appellation oysters."
Indeed, there was some pushback from diners unaccustomed to paying more for their standard bags of cheap, fat Gulf oysters. We're spoiled in many ways in Houston, and having a backyard full of incredibly inexpensive bivalves -- which I personally believe are the best, most buttery, most versatile oysters in the world -- is just one of those ways.
But appellations on some of your oysters doesn't mean you're paying a premium for all your oysters.
Instead, diners get the chance to decide: Do you want to pay more for oysters from a specific area, which have been specially sourced for their "merroir"? Or do you want your standard cheap Gulf oysters by the dozen? There's no wrong way here.
For those who work in the industry, oysters given definition with an appellation will fetch far more money at market, giving oystermen options when they're out on their trawlers and adding another dimension to the industry -- and adding a measure of prestige to the oysters Gulf residents are already rightfully proud of.
The option of appellated oysters also confer upon Gulf oysters the same sort of talismanic power -- as oyster king Jon Rowley once put it -- as those from the West or East Coasts which fetch a pretty price specifically because people can name where they came from. But it's not all commercialism.
Gulf appellation oysters at The Oceanaire.
Photo by Katharine Shilcutt
"Like wines," wrote R.W. Apple in the New York Times several years before the appellation boom, "oysters are children of their environment." The same species of oysters grown in different waters with different levels of algae or salinity will taste completely different from one another -- much the same way as a Cabernet grape will taste different depending upon the soil and climate in which it grows.
While this year's crop of oysters has been stunted and delayed by the warm weather, Gossen says that we can start looking for Gulf appellation oysters to hit restaurants by the first of January. Reef, Branch Water Tavern and The Oceanaire are just a few of the places expected to get them in. And if you haven't tried a Pepper Grove, Lonesome Reef, Ladies Pass or Resignation Reef oyster yet, you can make it an easily-tackled New Year's resolution.
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