An Oyster by Any Other Name

At this past weekend's inaugural Foodways Texas symposium, one of the most eagerly anticipated seminars wasn't held in a conference room, and it didn't come with a PowerPoint presentation. Attendees instead slurped down all manner of freshly shucked Gulf oysters at Galveston's classic seafood restaurant, Gaido's, as oyster specialists like Robb Walsh, Jon Rowley, Jim Gossen, Tracy Woody and Dr. Sam Ray explained the benefits of giving those oysters the most important thing that a food can have: a name.

As Hanna Raskin of the Dallas Observer pointed out in her recap of the evening, "More than a century ago, there wasn't any such thing as a 'gulf oyster.' Oysters were offered under specific place names -- a tradition revived this weekend."

Raskin continued, "The fantastic buffet sparked plenty of conversation, which is part of the rationale for reinstituting appellations."

When I talked to Jon Rowley last Friday as I dropped by Louisiana Foods, he echoed Raskin's sentiments in a discussion prior to the weekend's events. Giving something a name -- an appellation -- gives it power, gives it a story, gives it a sense of history and interest that wouldn't otherwise exist. A name is a talisman.

And Gulf oysters can use the magical powers that a talisman confers at a time when events like the BP oil spill and the constant threat of Vibrio vulnificus -- exacerbated in some parts of the Gulf by the oil from the spill -- both remain at the forefront of consumers' minds when they think of our native Texas oysters.

Consider the Apalachicola oyster from Florida.

If an oyster merely has name of its own, diners are able to pick out that type of oyster from all the millions of others harvested from the Gulf each year and confer a kind of intangible yet viscerally important sense of meaning onto it.

More importantly, a consumer doesn't immediately associate an Apalachicola with the Gulf of Mexico -- they think of it as a high-quality, specially obtained prize, one for which they will eagerly shell out far more than just $10 a dozen, unlike our own cheap Gulf oysters.

That's not to say that cheap Gulf oysters don't have their place. Luxury and value can coexist on the Texas coast. 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.

Right now, you can get Pepper Grove oysters at several Houston-area restaurants. They were a crowd favorite at the Foodways Texas oyster dinner. Pepper Grove, as Robb Walsh explains on his blog, were once as prized in Texas as Apalachicolas are throughout the south: "At the time of the Civil War, oysters from Pepper Grove Reef in East Galveston Bay were very popular in oyster bars. So were the oysters from Lady's Pass and several other spots."

Branch Water Tavern, Bootsie's and Reef are three of the Houston restaurants that are currently serving these beauties on the half shell. "And so it begins," Tweeted Chef Bryan Caswell yesterday afternoon. "Texas oysters appellations on the menu at Reef."

"Get these bad mofros tonight," Chef Randy Rucker followed suit today as he posted a photo of his Pepper Grove stash on Twitter.

To get my fix, I stopped in at Branch Water yesterday, where Chef David Grossman described the Pepper Grove as "plump and sweet, and not too briny." He was exactly right. All it needed was the faintest squeeze of lemon juice on top. They're selling for $1.76 each. A pretty good deal for such a storied oyster.

And while the Gulf oyster harvest is still drastically smaller than in previous years, our chilly winter and recent cold snaps mean that right now is as good a time as any to enjoy the bounty that's just off our coast -- especially while they're still sweet and cheap.

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Katharine Shilcutt