The Big Oyster

The Big Oyster…and I don’t mean Marc…

The Big Oyster is the title of Mark Kurlansky’s new book which shucks the long and complex story of this bi-valve from between the crusted shells of history. Kurlansky’s last book was Cod, which did the same thing for that significant fish, primarily as a lens for the history of North America, and it appears he focuses primarily on oysters in New York City in this new book, at least according to the New York Times review.

Oysters also happened to be a subject of the Boston Globe’s food section this week, which follows a Wellfleet oyster shucker to the national oyster shucking championships in Miami.

Maine has a few oyster farms, although we are apparently on the northern edge of their native territory. One of them, Flying Point Oysters in Yarmouth (just north of Portland) was profiled in the Portland paper last fall. Another one is Pemaquid Oyster Company in the Damariscotta river about an hour up the coast. I know that oysters in France (who are likely to have invented oyster farming) are grown all up and down the Atlantic coast, most famously at the mouth of the Gironde River near Bordeaux…perhaps Dr. B will weigh in with more details on this.

My own introduction to oysters were smoked oysters in soy oil from a tin. Every time my parents hosted a cocktail party I probably ate most of these before the guests ever arrived. Then I learned about oysters on the half-shell at the Salty Dog in Quincy Market building, which was open throughout the renovation and construction of Fanueil Hall Marketplace. I also really liked quohogs on the half-shell at this link to Olde Boston with sawdust on the floor, draft beer, and gruff bartenders who also opened the shellfish in front of you.

One memorable night when I spent time at the Duke Marine Lab in Beaufort (pronounced “BOW-fort” in NC) the professors hosted a “get-to-know” for all the new students where they served keg beer and “barbecued oysters” which were just oysters dropped on a hot charcoal grill until they popped open, then served with a shake of Texas Pete’s on top. I once repeated this dish after getting oysters from my favorite oyster spot: Tamalas Bay at Point Reyes. You could walk right out on one of the Tamalas Bay Oyster Farm’s series of docks with them where they’d yank up a wire box full of oysters and dump them into a burlap sack that you were holding. They’d weigh the sack when you got back to shore and you’d pay by the pound. We once took a sack of those oysters back over the coastal hills to the Calistoga Spa where we grilled them up after an evening soak in their mineral pools.

I’ve also enjoyed oysters on the half-shell along the Gulf Coast, but they were always served at room temperature on a naked tray — not on crushed ice like they do on the Atlantic and Pacific coasts…it’s a little disconcerting, and I could never quite get over that to really enjoy those specimens.

2 thoughts on “The Big Oyster

  1. That particular picture was taken at the Hog Island Oyster Company outside the Ferry Building in San Francisco. We were there on the occasion of Brian and Valerie’s visit last September. We were on our way through three dozen of those wonderful bivalves, accompanied by a bottle of crisp rose.

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  2. As far as I know, the most famous oystering parts of France are Brittany and Normandy, both on La Manche (or what limeys call the English Channel). I haven’t heard much about oysters in the Gironde (which is not normally thought of as a river, per se, more of a mouth) but I wouldn’t be surprised to hear of them there.
    On the Med, the main oystering spot is the Étang de Thau, which is about 30 minutes from here by car. I took the SF folk to an oyster dive there at one point. That was before I found the really nice oyster places that are on the water — we’ll save that for next time.
    Incidentally, I came breath-takingly close to buying a keelboat moored on the Étang de Thau in a little town called Balaruc, which is right next to the main oystering towns of Bouzigues and Mèze. Would’ve been sweet to have a sail followed by fresh oysters on the beach. The deal fell thru when the mooring that was promised in the deal turned out to be only available to les Balarucois (i.e. tax-payin’ residents of that fair village). I’ve got my eye on another boat in Sète….

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