Like Swallowing a Baby

Some things just don’t scale up. Take oysters, for example.

The bite-sized oyster—raw, baked, or broiled on the half shell, bubbled with cream in oyster stew—is a delicious oyster. The foot-long oyster—the size of the shellfish that used to flourish in old New York Harbor’s pristine bay—is something else again. William Makepeace Thackeray, who gulped one of these down in 1852, remarked in horror that it was much like swallowing a baby.

Oysters, nowadays, aren’t everybody’s cup of tea—in fact, they routinely pop up on “Most Hated Foods” lists, along with Brussels sprouts, liver, and tofu—but our ancestors shamelessly adored them. Piles of post-feast oyster shells—known as middens—are found along coasts world-wide. One of the largest, in Denmark, dates to the Neolithic period and is roughly the size of the Titanic.

In Roman times, a 4000-mile-long barrier reef of oysters extended from Scandinavia south along the Atlantic coast and into the Mediterranean as far as Greece. Oysters, harvested from these beds, were highlights of Roman feasts, and many Roman homes maintained salt-water tanks in which about-to-be-eaten oysters were kept fresh for the table. The first-century De re coquinaria—the oldest known Roman cookbook—includes several recipes for oysters; one recommends seasoning them with pepper, lovage, egg yolks, vinegar, broth, oil, and wine (honey optional).

By the first century, however, Mediterranean oysters, due to Roman over-consumption, were running low. Those oyster-lovers who could afford it imported oysters from as far away as the French coast, sending slaves to trundle them over the Alps in carts packed with ice and snow; and the oyster-hungry Empire was constantly on the look-out for bigger and better sources of oysters. The newly conquered island of Britain—a country many Romans didn’t think much of—proved to have one redeeming feature: “Poor Britons!” wrote the historian Sallust, “There is some good in them after all. They have produced an oyster.”

The oyster that the Romans so craved was Ostrea edulis, the European flat oyster, still (at least by Europeans) claimed to be the tastiest oyster. Its major competitor is Crassostrea virginica, the Atlantic oyster—said to be larger, but blander—which once flourished from Nova Scotia to the Gulf of Mexico. European explorers, when they reached North America, found mind-bogglingly enormous oyster beds. Captain John Smith in 1608 described oysters “as thick as stones” in Chesapeake Bay; and Henry Hudson in 1609 found 350 square miles of oyster beds in New York Harbor. (Biologists guess that the harbor may once have held half the world’s oysters.)

“An oyster,” writes M.F.K. Fisher, “leads a dreadful but exciting life.” It also leads an essentially motionless one.

Oysters are born in spawning season, during which male oysters release sperm and females release ten million or more eggs. Spawning is temperature-dependent, occurring when the water temperature tops 68oF – that is, in summer, during those fatal months lacking Rs. (Scary strictures against eating oysters during R-less months should be taken with a grain of salt: R-less oysters are perfectly fine, though connoisseurs argue that they’re less flavorful. This may be, suggests Fisher, because oysters “like all men, are somewhat weaker after having done their best at reproducing.”)

Fertilized eggs turn into tiny swimming larvae which, within 24 hours, develop miniature shells. These infant oysters—known as veligers—enjoy about three weeks of carefree mobility, after which they sprout feet, sink to the bottom of the water column, and cement themselves to a solid surface. The newly anchored oyster is known, charmingly, as a spat. It takes one to three years for a spat to reach oyster adulthood, after which the average oyster can live up to twenty years, unless preyed upon by starfish, snails, or people.

The American Indians seem to have eaten most of their oysters roasted in the shell—possibly because they had no easy way of getting them open. A live oyster is a tough nut to crack. It keeps its shell clamped shut by means of an adductor muscle, a formidable organ capable of exerting up to 22 pounds of pressure. (The stubborn solidity of this seal explains why a close-mouthed person is referred to as an oyster.) Once wrapped in seaweed and tossed in the fire, however, the roasted oyster loosens its grip and mercifully pops apart.

By the 17th century, universal passion for oysters had generated dozens of recipes for soups, stews, sauces, fries, patties, pickles, and pies. Martha Washington’s Booke of Cookery—a family heirloom by the time it reached Martha’s hands in 1749—includes a recipe “To Roste a Capon with Oysters,” and Hannah Glasse’s The Art of Cookery Made Plain and Easy—first published in 1747 and the most popular cookbook of the 18th century—has recipes for oyster “ragoo,” “soop,” “collops of oysters,” and an oyster sauce for turkey. Amelia Simmons’s American Cookery—the first American cookbook, published in 1796—has instructions “To Smother a Fowl in Oysters,” which involves not only stuffing the bird with “dry Oysters,” but also dousing it once it’s done with a pint of “stewed oysters, well buttered and peppered.”

Oysters are not only scrumptious; they’re good for you. They’re high in protein, minerals, vitamin B-12, and omega-3 fatty acids, and—at least all by themselves—they’re low in calories. Reputedly they boost a flagging intellect: Cicero is said to have eaten them to improve his eloquence, and Louis XI (nicknamed “the Cunning”) supposedly fed them to his advisors to boost their brainpower.

And—since at least the time of the ancient Romans—oysters have been touted as aphrodisiacs. Giacomo Casanova, with an eye toward sexual performance, is said to have eaten 50 oysters daily, for breakfast. “Think of oysters, try not to think of sex,” writes Rebecca Stott in her fascinating and efficiently titled book Oyster.

In 2005, research by George Fisher and colleagues at Barry University in Miami, FL, suggested a possible explanation for the oyster’s hot and bothered reputation. They found bivalve mollusks such as mussels and oysters to be rich in D-aspartic acid and N-methyl-D-aspartate (NMDA), a pair of unusual amino acids that boost the production of sex hormones in rats. It just may be that oysters similarly up hormones and enhance sex drive in humans—provided the human eats a lot of them and swallows them raw. (Cooked oysters have lower quantities of the crucial amino acids.)

About 95% of oysters that reach kitchen and restaurant tables today are farm-raised; the vast oyster beds that once surrounded the European and North American coasts are now mere shadows of their former selves, victims of over-harvesting, agricultural run-off, and pollution. Re-populating these oyster beds has potential for greatly improving the health of challenged marine ecosystems. Oysters are natural filtering systems, each single shellfish capable of filtering some fifty gallons of water a day. In their heyday, the lush oyster beds of New York could filter the entire contents of New York Harbor in under a week.

“Oysters taste like the sea,” writes Rowan Jacobsen in A Geography of Oysters. “No other food does. Not lobsters, not saltwater fish, not scallops or clams or even kelp.”

They’re a treat to eat. But in that one brine-y bite, they’re also a reminder of what they have the potential to save.

This story is part of National Geographic’s special eight-month Future of Food series.

References

  • Fisher, M.F.K. Consider the Oyster. North Point Press, 1988.
  • Jacobsen, Rowan. A Geography of Oysters: The Connoisseur’s Guide to Oyster Eating in North America. Bloomsbury USA, 2008.
  • Kurlansky, Mark. The Big Oyster: History on the Half Shell. Random House, 2007.
  • Stott, Rebecca. Oyster. Reaktion Books, 2004.

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