I am allergic to shellfish through some mysterious act of the gods, yet oysters have marked my summer and are on my mind as the season once again turns to a month with an “r” in it. The dictum not to eat oysters in months without an “r” in their spelling is a long-standing one and may have to do with the months in which the mollusks traditionally spawn. However, with the advent of refrigeration, people increasingly ignore the old saw. Some places like Casamento’s Oyster House in New Orleans remained one of the last holdouts, closing for several months during the summer. They closed this year as well, but with the Gulf of Mexico oil spill gushing wildly, no one was sure of when they would reopen.
My early summer was spent in New Orleans amid folks wondering and worrying about the BP oil spill at a time when the city should have been rejoicing at the progress that had been made five years after Hurricane Katrina and looking forward to better things yet to come. In June, I ate with friends who consumed Gulf oysters with appetites that would make Henry VIII blanch and heard tales of how the old-line New Orleans eateries like Galatoire’s and Antoine’s were examining their old recipe files to discover ways to continue if Gulf oysters should not be available.
Oyster beds of Virginia
A few weeks after watching friends slurp down several dozens of plump Gulf oysters, I found myself on the eastern shore of Virginia. Again oysters prevailed. There were oyster tastings with the connoisseurs savoring the difference between saltwater and freshwater varieties and oysters – raw, fried, poached and baked – at almost every meal and much slurping all round. One of the high points of the trip was riding out to oyster beds and being instructed on the aquaculture that allowed them to be produced in controlled conditions. We watched the various stages of the production from the seeding of the oyster beds to the harvesting of the shellfish.
I even managed to summon up the courage to hop (OK, climb with much trepidation) over the side of the boat to see the beds up close. Sitting in the damp bottom of a boat as it sped along the flats, I thought of my friends in New Orleans, but also of the history of some 19th century African-Americans whose knowledge of oysters allowed them to create businesses based on the mollusks. One man, Thomas Downing, managed to earn enough to open a restaurant and later a hotel, and to become one of New York City’s leading black citizens. At that time when much of America indulged in a love affair with the briny mollusks, African-American oystermen were in the vanguard of the trade.
Potluck on Martha’s Vineyard
My oyster summer finished on Martha’s Vineyard where at the Slow Food Martha’s Vineyard’s potluck, oyster knives once again were being manned. Here they were deftly wielded, not by those whose facility with their oyster knives and their gift of gab gave rise to the expression shuck and jive, but by local oystermen. My friends assured me they were no less tasty. I noted with dismay for my oyster-loving friends a sign in a local fish market that attested to the fact that the BP oil spill and the resulting lack of oysters on the American market had caused a rise in oyster prices.
As summer fades into September — a month with an “r” in it — no one is sure what is going on in the Gulf. What we do know is that oysters and other Gulf seafood were and are some of the most desirable in the country. There may not be as many as there were in the past, but Gulf oysters are still around and being savored. Casamento’s has reopened, and a reduced staff of shuckers is hard at work. Diners at Antoine’s, Galatoire’s, Dooky Chase’s, and other of the city’s eateries continue to savor their oysters Rockefeller and oyster po’ boys. I know that when I’m back in New Orleans at month’s end and see oysters on the menu, I may have to load up on Benadryl, get myself an epi-pen and slurp down at least one to show my solidarity with the Gulf oystermen, fishermen and shrimpers who have lost so much once again.
Jessica B. Harrisis the author of 11 critically acclaimed cookbooks documenting the foods and foodways of the African Diaspora. In 2010 she was named to the James Beard Who’s Who of American Food and Beverage.