Oyster How To'sFebruary 3, 2017

How to Open Oysters Without a Shucking Knife

Have you ever been stuck on an island with a bunch of oysters, but not a shucking knife? Here’s how to work around this “terrible” situation.

In A Half Shell Zeeland Roem Holland Oysters

Over the winter holiday, B and I went on our first dedicated dive trip to Bonaire, a tiny island that’s part of the Netherlands Antilles in the Carribean Sea. Ever since our trip to St. Lucia in 2012, I have been fascinated with being underwater. Then once I got my PADI certification in Thailand in 2014, scuba diving has become our new thing. If you haven’t tried it before, do try it! It gives you a whole new level of appreciation for our oceans.

We dove twice a day, every day, for 10 days. While I knew that we would encounter plenty of surprises under the sea, I was surprised to discover something equally remarkable inside the island’s main supermarket.

In A Half Shell Zeeland Roem Holland Oysters

Fact: where there are oysters, there I will be. It was the day before Christmas Eve and this super nice Dutch supermarket was packed. People were running around buying up all sorts of fruits, vegetables, meats, liquor, and snacks. Without even thinking about it, I wandered into an aisle in the “prepared” seafood section and came across this tightly packed wooden box of oysters from the Netherlands. A promo sign sign hung next to this box and another tray of less impressively packaged oysters. There was only one box left and I haven’t had “Zeeland” oysters in many, many years! Obviously, I wouldn’t be leaving the shop without it.

After paying about $25 USD for this pack of 12, we went back to our villa and started investigating the origins of these oysters. Zeeland’s Roem is part of Europe’s largest seafood processor. They mainly deal in shellfish—mussels, oysters, and prawns. On their website, they claim that their creuse oysters, known as “Fines de Zélande” are raised in pure Zeeland waters of the Oosterschelde and Grevelingen.

I picked up an oyster from the seaweed nest and felt the heftiness in my hand. A lot of meat inside, perhaps? That’s when I came to the realization that we’d have to improvise a bit on getting these guys open. I am a strong proponent for safe shucking, which means that I think you should always use hand protection and a proper oyster knife. I know, I know, some bros want to act tough and shuck barehanded. That’s fine, whatever. I like to keep my palms as soft, smooth, and blood-free as possible! 🙂

But assume you’re without a knife. (Maybe you broke it already?) That’s a cue to head to the garage or tool shed. Look for a sturdy instrument with a tapered or flat, but somewhat sharp tip. Some have found success with butter knives… in this case, a butter knife wouldn’t even fit under the hinge! We ended up having luck with one of the screwdrivers on a diver’s multitool.

Check out my buddy Hans taking a crack at it in the video below:

So there you have it! Fresh oysters from Holland that are pretty damn well shucked, if I don’t say so myself. (All of the oysters pictured above were by yours truly.) Unfortunately, the balmy 80-degree weather and my paranoia prevented me from trying any of these raw. Although I’m sure they would’ve been perfectly fine, there was no way in hell that I’d want to risk it before an international flight. In the end, we settled on grilling them with a makeshift BBQ bourbon butter. They were still quite tasty, but I suppose I’ll have to take a trip to Holland to experience the real deal.

What is the strangest tool you’ve ever used to open an oyster? Share your story in the comment section below!

Oyster Trips & ToursDecember 10, 2016

Ebb, Flow, and Cape May Salts

There’s no greater constant than change. That has been generally true of life and of oysters. Throughout the years, I’ve come across the Cape May Salt oyster from the southern tip of New Jersey many, many, many, many times. While some of its attributes never really change (like how pleasantly plump the meats are), the salinity and sweetness have always kept me guessing.

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A New Perspective

In 2009-ish, I had set out on a personal quest to capture and catalog the world of oyster flavors. It started as a basic 1-5 rating scale of salinity, sweetness, complexity, plus a healthy dose of fanciful froufrou descriptors. I even recorded the place and time of the tasting, but that was the extent the “scientificness.” For me, it was about doing fun and tasty scavenger hunt—an epicurean equivalent to Pokémon Go (is that still a thing??).

Today, the world has become inundated with books, websites, apps, and articles that insist on cataloging different oyster varietals to specific flavor descriptions. I’m guilty of this practice via my Oyster Concierge (soon to completely change), but I’ve come to realize that this an over-simplified and limited approach.

I should’ve seen the obvious truth.

Just sneak a peek at a fellow raw bar patron who just enjoyed their first oyster out of the dozen. They’re probably grinning from ear to ear. It’s not because their taste buds agreed with a description they found on somewhere on the web. They’re on a hunt for the unexpected. I’m not saying that it’s pointless to capture, trade or publish notes. What I am saying is: don’t assume that one experience or a single description can summarize an oyster’s entire expression. Because it doesn’t. It’s far from it. It fluctuates week to week, month to month, year to year. Hyper vintages, if you will.

I’m not saying that it’s pointless to capture, trade or publish notes. What I am saying is: let’s not kid ourselves and assume that one experience or a single description can summarize an oyster’s entire expression. Because it doesn’t. (It’s far from it.) It fluctuates week to week, month to month, year to year. The oyster world revolves around hyper vintages, if you will.

And that leads me to Cape May Salts. It is one of the few varieties that I have build a respectable collection of tasting notes on. They’re so easy to write about because they always seem to be around (but seriously guys, NJ oysters need a lot more love). Cape May Salts have surprised me more often than any other oyster. One year, they’re beautifully crisp with pointed salinity and sweet like ripe plums. The next year, they are earthy and mushroomy and mellow. Have you ever experienced that before?

Here are a handful of times when I’ve described this oyster on the blog:

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Billion Oyster Party — June 3, 2015 (image of a 33 Oyster tasting journal excerpt above)

Whiskey Washback — October 11, 2015
Cape May Salts (naked) paired with Port Charlotte Scottish Barley. I visited the Cape May Oyster farm a few months ago and was very impressed with their oysters from this year. The plump, buttery meats are a delight to savor. While the Scottish Barley is beautiful on its own, I didn’t love the pairing in this case. The strong peatiness of this scotch overpowered the subtleties of the Cape May Salt. Had the oyster been somehow cold smoked with a liquid smoke version of this scotch, I think it would’ve done well. Or maybe if you cut the scotch with oyster liquor?

The Dressler — May 9, 2012
First course was a simple and tasty Shooter featuring a plump Cape May Salt Oyster from the Cape Shore of Delaware Bay, NJ and a small glass of tomato water, bloody mary, and mezcal. The combination was potent and refreshing. The Cape May Salt was simultaneously succulent and firm. Also you can’t go wrong with starting with a little booze.

Saxon & Parole — February 16, 2012
The deeper we get into the meal, the heavier the courses become. At this point, the oysters begin to take a backseat to the creation… Same with the grilled and chilled tuna with baby romaine, green beans, olives and a Cape May Caesar dressing. It was delicious but didn’t showcase the oyster as well as the earlier courses.

Hank’s Oyster Bar — December 5, 2009
Cape May Salt: A small petite (1 inch) oyster that tasted very clean and crisp. The meat was very light, plump, and the liquid was moderately salty.

 

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Visiting the Farm

To truly appreciate why an oyster tastes the way it does, I always want to go to the source. I want to shake hands with the people who handle the oyster for three seasons or more. Last summer I had a chance to do just that. Cape May Salts are raised and marketed by Atlantic Cape Fisheries, a well-established Northeastern shellfish & seafood company that deals a lot with scallops, squid, and other tasty treats of the sea.

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Brian Harman, farm manager for Atlantic Cape Fisheries can usually be found either in the mud or on the phone. He started his career as a hatchery specialist at Rutgers University and eventually took over the production of Cape May Salts, the largest oyster farm in NJ at the moment. I learned that the relationship between Rutgers University and commercial oyster cultivation along the New Jersey coastline is deeply intertwined. Had it not been for the ongoing shellfisheries research program at Rutgers, which first began with Julius Nelson in 1888 and eventually led to Harold Haley Haskin’s oyster-saving work in the 1950’s, there would not be nearly as much oyster farming along the Atlantic coast.

The Haskin Shellfish Research Laboratory can still be seen from the oyster farm (tucked away on the right in the image below). It serves as an apt reminder of the work that has come before and the work that still has yet to be done.

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What About New Jersey, You Guys?

Can we back up a second and talk about New Jersey’s oyster scene? In full honesty, I was really skeptical about eating oysters from New Jersey at the beginning. But one trip to the original Forty North Oyster Farm location with my friends from the New York Oyster Meetup changed my mind. My visit to Cape May and learning about the The Oyster Farmers documentary further fueled my enthusiasm. NJ oystermen and women have survived some tough shit and their hard work deserves more credit at the raw bar. (So ahem, restauranteurs & chefs: please stop changing the origin of NJ oysters to “Delaware” or something else ridiculous. Own it. Be proud.)

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Back to the farm. The low tide exposed a few hundred yards of densely packed sand. Although the tides here aren’t terribly large (~5ft), the gradual incline of the beach can play a visual trick on you. The water averages around 25ppt salinity, and Brian noted that it’s never lower than 23ppt.

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Brian handed me a pair of hip waders and we waddled — or at least I waddled — out to the farm crew. As we approached the workbench, I could hear the croquet-esque clunking of the shells on the table. The guys were sorting through the bags, putting like sizes together. For the most part Cape May Salts are grown out using off-bottom rack and bag gear. This method works quite well for this kind of environment. Brian would come out here every day to conduct quality checks, which I also suspect is code for “breakfast of champions.” 😉

Of course, no farm tour is complete without a taste test. My favorite part, obviously. It wasn’t terribly hot out that day, but to be safe Brian brought along a small cooler of ice-packed Cape May Salts that were recently harvested to try. It still amazes me that every Cape May Salt that I’ve had in my life came from this exact spot. Unless if you belong to a CSA, when else do you have that certainty about where your food comes from?

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Brian popped one open in a snap. Just look at that plumpness. Now that’s what I call a premium meat-to-shell ratio.

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The Future

Fast forward to a couple of months ago. I received a package containing a brand new oyster that Brian has been working on at the farm. Same site, different method. Always happy to play the guinea pig for friends, I was immediately excited by the look of these. As of right now, it’s a nameless product. But for the oyster nerds who are reading this (and see the photos below), you probably can guess just how they’re grown.

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One of the newest innovations in oyster grow out technique/technology is the tide-powered “flip bag” method, which was first developed at Chelsea Farms by John Lentz and Tom Bloomfield. The idea of using the tides to literally do the heavy lifting for growers has spread pretty widely across the Pacific Northwest, but this is the first time that I’ve heard of an East Coast farm attempting to do it (unless if I’m having a total brain fart and can’t think of any others). Anyone want to correct me here?

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Anyway, these little nuggets are beauties and ridiculously cute. I immediately fell in love with the petite size, walnut shape, and uber plumpness. They’re super easy to shuck because the shells are thick and sturdy. There wasn’t much chipping at all, which made for a great slurping experience.

For good measure, Brian included a bag of Cape May Salts in the box as well for comparison’s sake. The flavor of the “Oyster X” was fairly similar to the original, but perhaps a smidge less saline. The texture was really what set them apart. Tender yet firm, meaty yet light, and juicy. Atlantic Cape Fisheries just needs to acquire Arby’s and steal their tagline. #WEHAVETHEMEATS

 

Many thanks to Brian Harman for your support and patience while I overcome a serious case of blogging-procrastination. 🙂

Oyster KnowledgeJuly 10, 2016

Natural Wine 101 and Oyster Pairing with Sommelier Doreen Winkler

Before meeting Doreen Winkler, a natural wines expert and founder of Diamond Sommelier Services, I had honestly no idea what natural wines were all about. The two words sounded superfluous together, or maybe even “marketing-esque” at first. Then a few months ago, we hosted a Natural Wine and Oyster Pairing class together at Sel Rrose, and she opened my eyes to this growing niche. Here’s what I learned (and what you need to know):

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What is natural wine?

I’ll be the first to admit that I’m a complete layman when it comes to wine. I had a romantic view of winemaking as an artisanal, non-industrial process. Apparently, that’s only a small fraction of the industry today. The term “natural wine” is a broad umbrella that includes organic, biodynamic, and sustainable wine. Natural wine is about 1% of the wine produced in the world today. Note that not all organic wines are necessarily considered to be “natural.”

Instead of trying to sort out all of the labels (biodynamic vs organic vs sustainable), I found it easier to think of natural wine as a philosophy. “In the end is just about making wine that is a natural product with as little intervention as possible,” explained Doreen. It is a traditional view of wine as an expression of specific terroir and grape varieties, with minimal interference by the winemaker. So what does that mean from a technical standpoint? Here’s a summary from Urban Earth Wines:

For a wine to be considered natural, it must be also be vinified as naturally as possible. This means that after it has been cultivated organically or biodynamically, there must be a minimum use of additives and technological manipulations. Examples of additives include sugar, acidifiers, and powdered tannins. Manipulations can include the use of spinning cones to remove alcohol, micro-oxygenation to accelerate aging, and the use of laboratory cultivated yeast.

The key aspects of what we consider to be a natural wine are:

  • No synthetic molecules in the vines
  • Plowing or other solutions to avoid chemical herbicides.
  • Use of indigenous yeast
  • Handpicked grapes
  • Low to no filtering
  • Low to no sulfites
  • Winemaking that respects the grapes: no pumping or rough handling of the grapes, no micro-oxygenation.
  • No chaptalization

Additives in Wine

Let’s talk a little bit more about what’s actually in wine. In the US, there is a surprisingly large number of additives, cleansers, and fining agents are allowed to be used in the winemaking process—over 200 some claim. I was shocked to learn this from Doreen, and surprised that there wasn’t more reporting about it or alarm. Last spring, CBS broke a story about a Denver laboratory finding high levels of arsenic in a number of California wines. That news and subsequent class lawsuit have since been smoldered and cast aside. Despite our national obsession with organic and chemical-free anything nowadays, we don’t have that much transparency into our favorite fermented grape juice. “There are almost no federal labeling requirements to tell you what’s really in wine,” according to CBS. I find it strange that we know more about what’s in our shampoo than what we’re all drinking on a weekly (maybe daily for some?) basis.

Just for the record: I’m not against additives in wine. I’d just like to know what’s in it so I can make better informed decisions! Oh, and I bet that I’m not alone. It will be interesting to see how the natural wines niche grows, and through it, bring more attention to the fact that we’re all sipping on some pretty delicious ignorance right now.

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Evolution through natural wine selection

I don’t have the time to become a wine expert myself, so thank goodness for sweet and knowledgeable somms like Doreen. When she’s consulting for her clients—like Sel Rrose—she challenges herself to curate wine lists that are both unique in taste and story. Natural wine folks are often seen as extremists and the uber-hippies of the industry. Doreen takes a more practical approach.

“I choose wineries that are organically farmed and have biodynamic practices. I don’t care if they are certified; it’s more about the lifestyle and meaning than the certification. Keep in mind that it takes 15 years to become biodynamic certified and a lot of money!”

It’s worth mentioning that Doreen didn’t start out as a natural wine specialist. As this part of the wine industry grew, so did Doreen’s expertise. She walked me through several of the milestones that led her to where she is now: hotel management school, an amazing job in Switzerland, consulting for Chef Fredrik Berselius, and starting her own wine & restaurant consulting practice. Above all, working with Berselius seemed to be the catalyst to her deep appreciation for natural wines.

“At the time, I hadn’t had many good [natural wines], and decided to take some time to really search them out for myself.” Doreen must feel the same way about winery/importer visits as I do for oyster farm tours. 🙂

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Meroir, terroir, and Doreen’s pairing tips

Pairing oysters with natural wines is very satisfying in principle and practice, as there are many parallels you can draw between the two worlds. Both are basically created with simply what mother nature has provided, and in turn, both spark that “sense of place” that forces you to look up from your phone or stop mid-sentence, and to earnestly pay attention.

When a pairing works, they should be seen as true partners. “A good pairing changes the experience… it melds [the two elements] together.” Doreen offered a few basic guidelines of how to do this well:

When you’re pairing wine to brinier, leaner oysters, start with lighter, more minerally wines. “Minerality balances out salt.”

When pairing with creamier, more vegetal oysters, experiment with richer wines that have vibrant acidity.

For oysters that are clearly sweet and fat, perhaps a rosé champagne or a more fruit-forward white (that’s still bone dry) would do the trick.

Most importantly, don’t worry so much about what’s right and what’s wrong.”For oyster pairings, one should have a little bit more fun.” It’s all about having an open mind and willing to try new things.

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Further reading…

NPR “What The Heck Is Natural Wine?”

Food Republic “How Natural Wine Is Driving The Lower East Side Dining Scene”

Vogue “Why Wild, Chemical-Free, “Natural” Wines Are Taking the Industry by Storm”

Oyster Tasting NotesJune 19, 2016

Southern Charm With a Twist: Oyster Gifts from the Gulf

Happy Father’s Day, friends! I’m sitting outside on my parents’ deck right now overlooking a forest of trees, listening to the gentle rustle of their leaves and sleepy-sounding songbirds. It’s a perfect summer day. To keep the good stuff going, I thought I’d take a moment to share a couple of my favorite new discoveries from the Gulf: Massacre Island Oysters (AL) and Sally Bynum Anzelmo‘s (LA) gorgeous oyster-themed paintings and glassware.

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Massacre Island Oysters

A few weeks ago, a box of Massacre Island Oysters landed on my doorstep. They were sent by Chris Nelson from Bon Secour Fisheries, who insisted that I had to try these out. First of all, I’m going to be honest and admit that I don’t accept oysters from just anyone, nor freely write about every new oyster that I try. But after shucking a few open and savoring them, I knew that I had experienced something special.

Here are my tasting notes from that day:

Umm YUM. These hefty lime-sized oysters have a thick, sturdy shell and a faint brackish bayou aroma. On the inside, the meats are consistently pearly plump and come up nearly to the edge. Taste? Briny, like high 20s-low 30s ppt, earthy, powdered sugar and a serious sweet shrimp finish. Imagine wild-caught jumbo shrimp cocktail. Silky, tofu-like texture with a bit more density.

I didn’t mention that these were a breeze to shuck and had beautifully manicured shells. I’m not sure how I failed to take photos of any! Must have been too busy scarfing them down…

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Massacre Island Oysters are grown on the west end of Dauphin Island, Alabama, using off-bottom floating cages. The grower and founder of Massacre Island Oyster Ranch is Tyler Myers, a young aquaculturist who lives down the beach. Check out this great interview with Tyler written by Josh McCausland to learn more! I was pretty much won over when I came to the mention of his dogs, Biscuit and Gravy. Breakfast foods make the best pet names. (My husband and I fantasize about getting a Mini Dachshund named “Donut.”)

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Sallie Bynum Anzelmo Art & Houseware

I came across Sallie’s beautiful and youthful oyster artwork on Instagram one day. The abstract oyster shapes, chic color combinations, and playful designs really caught my eye. The Baton Rouge-based artist first started creating glassware in 2008 and developed her oyster line in 2011. Sallie told me her story in an email exchange:

“We were planning our wedding and moving in to our first house at the time. My florist decided to incorporate oyster shells into some of the arrangements and from there I was hooked on the beauty of the shell itself. I started creating large scale oyster paintings and added gold and metallics to the trim of the shells which has now become my signature look. Soon after the paintings, I had friends who wanted smaller versions of my oysters. So I decided to create a line of houseware, starting with the coasters and the gold oyster ornaments, which began the gold oyster craze. From there I made the dishes, oyster glasses, keychains, and so on…”

Yay! Wedding decor twinsies!

Sallie’s work is currently carried in seven states along the Gulf and East Coasts, and continues to make their way around the globe. You can also find a selection of her goods on Etsy. I’m kind of obsessed with her latest custom glassware commission too.

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Photos by Sallie Bynum Anzelmo

Gorgeous, right? On that note, I think it’s time to grab a glass of my own and take it easy for the rest of the day. Many thanks to Chris from Bon Secour and Sallie for sharing their oyster love with me!

Oyster KnowledgeApril 29, 2016

9 Things To Know About Oysters

Oysters are exotic, mysterious, bizarre, gross, sexy, and just plain old provocative. No matter how you feel about them, there’s a good chance they stir your imagination in one way or another. If they don’t, this post probably isn’t for you. Look at this instead!

I don’t know about you guys, but I Google a lot of weird stuff. Sometimes, a simple answer comes up immediately. Other times, not as quickly. With oysters, it’s rather hit or miss. I thought it would be helpful to provide one place to get the answers to all of your most wondered about questions. Disclaimer: a few might be a little “TMI” for the casual oyster eater, so please read with caution. Ignorance could be bliss. 😉

Oysters

1. What do oysters eat?

The truth: Oysters eat phytoplankton or small bits of algae suspended in the water. They are filter feeders, which means that they obtain their food by filtering water in and over their gills. Adult Virginica oysters can filter up to 50 gallons of water per day. Sometimes they’re referred to as bottom feeders or detritivores, but don’t turn your nose up at them because of that.

To demonstrate their fascinating ability, here is a time-lapse of oysters in filtering action.

The whole truth: So now you’re probably thinking… if oysters are equal opportunity eaters, and they’re in water that’s full of “nutrients,” thennnn aren’t we just all eating crap? Well, that is why you can’t get New York Harbor oysters anymore and also why we seriously need to protect our waters from becoming even more mucked up. I found this guest blog post by Chris Len for Deep Sea News that is worth a read. Oysters are voracious vegetarians, but fairly picky about what they nosh on. Despite the absence of a brain, oysters “know” what they can and cannot digest. Bob Rheault, Executive Director of the East Coast Shellfish Growers Association elaborates, “Even as a dust-speck sized larvae they do this. Identical sized algal particles (say Isochrysis and Chlorella) will be sorted with 90% efficiency even when mixed with a soup of thick silt to confuse them. The Isochrysis goes into the gut and the Chlorella and silt goes into the pseudofeces (rendering it bright green!). I have done this with radio tracers and the degree of efficiency is remarkable. It is one reason why the American oyster is so adaptable and can survive in high silt loaded waters while many other organisms struggle and suffocate with fouled gills.”

What I’d personally like to find out: Knowing that oysters taste like where they’re from — everything in the environment has an impact — my continuing question is just how do specific algaes or water composition affect the taste, and is there a finite way to measure it?

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2. Do oysters poop?

The simple truth: Yes, yes they do. Oysters expel both real poop AND pseudofeces, which are particles of non-food things in their food. It’s called “false feces” (#fakepoop) because the particles never enter their digestive tract.

The really “you asked for it” truth: See Erin Byers Murray, author of “Shucked: Life on a New England Oyster Farm,” blog post about it.

My pet peeve: When you google “oysters” and “poop” together, the conversation takes on a depressingly misinformed, ignorant, fearful form. Some particularly one-sided, skewed articles by fairly prominent publications aren’t helping the cause. I mean, can someone just register oysterpoop.com and clear the air about the whole subject of oysters and foodborne illness? It happens, but it doesn’t happen nearly as much as it does with other stuff we eat. I just don’t understand why the same people who cringe at raw oysters are happily scarfing down meat and poultry (or even lettuce) from sketchy fast food joints.

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3. What is that green stuff in my oyster?

The truth: If you come across an oyster with green-tinted gills, like the ones as shown above, consider yourself lucky. The greenish color comes from a particular type of blue diatom that the oysters are eating. It’s not harmful to eat an oyster like this, and in fact, its flavor is highly sought after. In France, the “verte” oysters are considered to be a delicacy and demand a higher price than its “blanc” counterparts. You can also find them in US at random, but more frequently in the winter when the blue diatoms are more abundant.

Watch out for that marketing: I’ve noticed that oysters with green gills tend to be hyped as a “rare specialty” and marked up in price accordingly. Don’t fall for it.

What I’m looking forward to: According to a research study published in May 2014, scientists have proposed that the blue pigment, known as marennine, has been found to have powerful antioxidant, antibacterial and antiviral properties. So perhaps the green oyster will one day be considered a super sexy superfood.

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4. Are oysters alive when I eat them?

The truth: You don’t want to eat a dead oyster, raw. Oysters should be kept alive right up until the moment when they’re shucked. The heart is right next to the bottom adductor muscle, so in most cases, it’s killed when you separate the meat from the shell.

How can you tell if it’s dead or alive: A living, unshucked oyster will be fully closed up, like a rock. Its working hard to avoid being your dinner. If the bill of the oyster gapes open and doesn’t close with a few taps, it’s probably dead (or it might be really cold and sleepy… so give it a minute if you just pulled them out of the fridge). If you bought a bag of freshly harvested oysters and some are dead, they could still be cooked and enjoyed. Just throw them on the grill or fry them up. Masterful shuckers will toss out the dead ones long before they reach your platter. Sometimes, I will poke at the outer edges of the mantle with a fork tong to see just how “lively” they still are.

What I found out the hard way: The French take quality assurance to the next level by leaving the bottom adductor muscle attached. This allows you to experience the freshest, most alive oyster as possible… but prepared to do some work (and get silently judged on it).

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5. Do oysters feel pain?

The truth: It’s still up for debate. We don’t really know. Some say no while others say yes. From an anatomical standpoint, oysters do not have a brain or a central nervous system, so it is not likely that they would experience the world in the same way that other animals do. That said, it is unclear whether or not you need a brain in order to “feel” or process pain.

I asked Guinness World Record Oyster Shucker and restaurateur Patrick McMurray for his thoughts. “My belief—as I am not a scientist—is that oysters feel pain as much as plants feel pain. Pain is a perceived sense—what your brain chooses to “feel” when nerves are activated. Oysters do not have sensory perception or ability to sense. Oysters react— close when touched, use cilia to move food particles etc. Some plants react the same way—flowers open and close, Venus Flytrap per se.”

My two cents: A lot of people ask this question, but in my mind, it’s kind of a trick. This question is not about the oyster at all. It’s about us and what we choose to believe, and how we want to live in this world.

Photo by Julie Qiu / InAHalfShell.com

6. How can you tell if you have a bad oyster?

The truth: Have you guys heard of the egg test (good eggs sink, bad eggs float)? I wish there were something as simple as that to gauge the quality of an oyster. There is no straightforward way to tell, but you can train your senses to pick up red flags. I asked my favorite SF Oyster Nerd, Greg Babinecz to take a crack at this one in a few sentences. Greg, true to his oyster-nerdy-nature, couldn’t help but submit a comprehensive perspective on the matter.

Greg’s cliff notes version:
1)  If it’s open and does not close to the touch, throw it away*.
2)  If it smells strongly sulfuric or rotten, throw it away.
3)  If it is very dried out and has no juiciness to it, throw it away*.
*or compost (see #9)
The full enchilada: 

Smell: Anything slightly afoul to your innate sense of what smells right, I would say is best to avoid.  Certainly there are oysters that inherently have a little “funk,” and are prized as such, but anything that strongly smells of rotten eggs, petrol, or fish tank gravel, go ahead and light a match and toss it in the trash (outdoor trash, preferably).  Some oysters will have unique “low tide” or metallic smells and are good, but those are rare and if you’re seeking those out, you’re probably not a novice shucker.

Look: A good oyster looks plump, juicy, and has a glistening sheen to it.  It simply looks fresh.  Quite often you’ll open an oyster and it will have a dried out, Jackson Pollock-esque splatter look to it.  If they still smell okay, they aren’t necessarily bad, they just aren’t good. Best use them for fried or BBQed oysters, or simply discard.

Taste: Several oysters I’ve shucked have passed the previous two tests, but then just taste like they’re spoiled. It will look great, smell fine, but upon consumption, taste terrible.  And there is a discernible difference between a strongly flavored oyster and a bad one.  Copper, musky, and even low tide flavors don’t mean it’s bad.  A very noticeable lack of salinity and a sulfuric-gaseous pop once bitten and you’ll immediately know it’s bad.  These rogue goblin oysters are the bane of many shuckers around the world.

Lastly, shell inspection: This should come first, but not without understanding smell and look.  A good rule for any bivalve is that if its shell is cracked, has holes, or is open and will not close to the touch, it’s best to avoid (mussels and scallops are kind of an exception).  An open bill that will not close to the touch usually indicates the oyster is dead.  All oysters should be alive right before they are shucked, and eating a dead one can be dangerous (see #4). Even if it smells and looks fine, but was open, I’d say best to avoid.  I’ve certainly gambled on some open bivalves before and been okay, but it’s best to play it safe.  But hey, it’s your stomach and your dice to roll.

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7. There’s a tiny crab in my oyster… is that normal?

The truth: “Sure it’s normal; it’s called a pea crab and lives her entire life inside the oyster. The crab doesn’t hurt the oyster and it won’t hurt you to eat both. In fact it’s good luck to eat the pea crab. Enjoy!” That’s reassurance from Chris Ludford, grower of Pleasure House Oysters and full-time fire boat captain for Virginia Beach.

What do they taste like? Not much. Salty like the sea, and the texture is like kind of like alfalfa sprouts. If eating them alive makes you squeamish, then pan fry them up with a dash of Old Bay.

Are they in all oysters? In my experience, pea crabs are most commonly found in Eastern oysters from brackish water. In fact, I can only recall finding them in oysters that are harvested from the Long Island Sound and inlets along the Chesapeake Bay. That doesn’t mean they’re not elsewhere though! Random fact: male pea crabs will move from oyster to oyster to do “house calls,” while the ladies stay put.

©2014 Julie Qiu Photography for In A Half Shell. All Rights Reserved.

8. There’s a creepy looking worm in my oyster… is that normal?

Stay calm and slurp on: Every time I hang out with a buddy of mine from LA (who’s not an oyster fan, but we get along anyway), he never fails to tell his story about that one time when he encountered a massive, horrendously large worm in his oyster, “like it was Dune or something.” It’s a disturbing visual and pretty unappetizing. Fortunately, it’s not abnormal or alien. That said, I don’t take photos of oyster worms so I’m sharing a photo from the Eastern Shore to help relax you instead.

If you don’t want to take my word for it, here’s oyster farmer Matt Gregg of Forty North Oyster Farms, who has encountered his fair share of weirdness, on the subject: “Oysters can be the perfect host for many tiny marine invertebrates, none of which, to my knowledge are harmful to humans. Oysters that grow in muddy and lower salinity environments tend to harbor an organism called a bloodworm. If you’re squeamish (most oyster eaters are not) stick to oysters that are grown close to the ocean, bloodworms can’t survive those conditions.”

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9. What happens to the shells?

The truth: In most cases around the country, the shells that we leave behind at the raw bar go straight into the garbage, which is truly a damn shame. Oyster shells can be recycled and repurposed for a number of things such as chicken feed booster, garden fertilizerwedding decor, and most notably, as the perfect substrate for baby oysters to grow on. Unfortunately, running a shell collection program is logistically challenging and pretty expensive. But what’s the opportunity cost? One seaside village in China has put a reclaimed value of approximately $3200 USD per ton of shell (for fertilizer and construction material.) That number would certainly be higher if you considered its restorative value back into our environment.

The exception to the rule: The symbiotic relationship between a traditional oyster planter and the oyster shucking house creates a closed loop system. Since all of the oysters are shucked in one spot, all of the shells are returned to the oyster farmer to be “replanted” for the next crop. But demand is starting to swing in favor of half shell consumption, which means we’re still running on a national shell deficit.

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What I’m hoping there will be more of: Oyster shell collection and oyster restoration initiatives have been building momentum around the country, such as along the Chesapeake and the Gulf. I’m personally rooting for NYC’s own oyster restoration & education program. Pete Malinowski, Director of Billion Oyster Project explains:

“The vast majority of oyster shells generated in New York City’s restaurants are packed into plastic bags and driven to points South to be landfilled. At Billion Oyster Project, we need oyster shells for our restoration projects and work hard to recover as many as we can from restaurants. Right now, we are collecting shells from 45 restaurants four days per week. We average over one ton of shell per day and are on track to collect 210 tons this year. The shells spend one year curing at the NRG Arthur Kill Power Plant in Staten Island. (Check out some of my photos from BOP’s previous curing site on Governors Island.) Once cured, we place the shells in tanks with oyster larvae. The larvae set on the shells creating the clusters of oysters we use for reef building.”

And on that note, I want to quickly plug in Billion Oyster Project’s upcoming fundraiser oysterfest, the Billion Oyster Party on May 19th. 40 oyster farms + dozens of NYC’s top restaurants + music + shucking contest + great venue. It’s going to be off the hook. Hope to see you there! I’ll be hosting a couple of pretty fun contests for oyster farmers and attendees that you won’t want to miss. (Many thanks to my friend Chavelli Tsui for doing the kickass “Shuck Me Beautiful” hand lettering!)

Shuck Me Beautiful

Got another oyster-related question that you’re curious about? Leave a comment and I’ll see about getting it answered!