Sex, Death and Oysters

As I draw my cocktail fork across it, the delicate creature contracts almost imperceptibly. Then I stab the quivering mouthful and slide it onto my tongue. The flavor is salty, a little metallic and surprisingly sweet. There's a subtle nuttiness in the chewy bit that surrounds the foot.

Eating raw oysters is exquisitely perverse. If they're freshly shucked, as they ought to be, you're putting the mollusk into your mouth while it's still alive. The wonderfully slick texture, delicate briny flavor and beachfront aroma make it easy to understand how oysters came to be associated with the tenderest portion of the female anatomy and thus considered an aphrodisiac.

But since a bacterium called Vibrio vulnificus found in raw Gulf Coast oysters poisons a few people every year, I also find myself contemplating my mortality as I eat a dozen on the half shell. It's a heady appetizer, each pale oyster so languid and vulnerable, brimming with images of sex and death.

The local oysters are incredibly sweet this year -- so sweet that such famous Louisiana oyster restaurants as Drago's Seafood in Metairie are serving Texas oysters alongside the Louisiana shellfish. "Texas oysters are the best right now," Croatian-American oysterman Drago Cvitanovich told me when I stopped by his Louisiana restaurant last December.

I always assumed Texas oysters came from a distant and pristine lagoon down past Corpus Christi somewhere. Given the heavy tanker traffic and the refineries hugging the coast along Texas City, you don't think of seafood thriving near the Ship Channel. I've always figured if there were any fish under there, they probably had three eyes.

So I was more than a little surprised to learn that, right now, acre for underwater acre, the most productive oyster reefs in North America are in Galveston Bay.

The waters of the bay are calm, the sky is blue, and the water temperature is hovering at 60 degrees -- perfect oyster weather. The Trpanj is a typical oyster boat, wide across the middle with a huge foredeck; it looks like a barge with an upturned nose. When the boat's dredge, a five-foot-long metal rake and net contraption, is hauled up, oysters and debris are tipped over onto the work table. The Mexican deckhands sort the "keepers" out of the gray jumble of empty shells and undersized oysters, throwing the legal ones into a growing pile on deck. Then they shove the empty shells and too-small oysters overboard.

The oysters are plentiful, and spirits are high. But things suddenly turn somber when a Texas Parks and Wildlife patrol boat pulls up alongside the Trpanj and two uniformed game wardens jump aboard. Warden Bobby Kana comes forward wearing wraparound sunglasses and a tough-guy frown.

The Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, which publishes a map showing where it's legal to harvest oysters, polices the oyster-fishing business. There's a large public oyster reef in the middle of the bay where anyone with a license can harvest oysters. Then there are four "conditional" zones, all of which are closed today because of excessive rainfall. (Runoff after a big rain is a major source of pollution in the bay.)

Oyster leases are areas leased from the state by private companies; marked by buoys, they're off-limits except to permitted boats. Areas close to shore and most of the upper bay are closed for oystering at all times.

Everybody in the business knows the rules. But the unprecedented number of oyster boats working Galveston Bay this year is putting tremendous pressure on the system. Nerves are frayed, and there's tension between the locals and boats from other waters.

"Who is the captain here?" Kana asks. Captain René Rivas introduces himself.

"Captain, you are working a leased area. Do you have a permit to be on this lease?" Rivas doesn't have the right paperwork. The other game warden accompanies the captain while he goes to get the boat's oyster license. Meanwhile, Kana produces a strange, square, C-shaped contraption and starts using it to measure the oysters in the pile on deck.

The Trpanj, which is named after a village in Croatia, is owned by the same Croatian-American family that owns Misho's Oyster Company, the largest oyster processor on Galveston Bay. They also own the oyster lease. So I'm confused by what the game wardens are doing here.

"It's Misho's boat and Misho's oyster lease, right?" I ask Kana.

"Yeah, but the permit hasn't been filed," he says. "And the lease is not properly marked."

"Are the oysters the right size?" I ask.

"Most of them are okay," he says. He holds up an offender that slips through the measuring device. "Two-and-a-half-inch oysters are very popular for oysters on the half shell," Kana says. "But anything under three inches is illegal in Texas."

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Robb Walsh
Contact: Robb Walsh