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Oyster Know-HowFebruary 14, 2018

Rowan Jacobsen’s New Rules of Oyster Eating

Nearly ten years ago, I fell in love with a book that sparked a creative act—this blog—that has since changed my life. Although there are many books about oysters out there, Rowan Jacobsen’s A Geography of Oysters will still be the true oyster nerd’s oyster book. I am very honored and excited to have the opportunity to share this repost with you. The New Rules of Oyster Eating is a brilliant mini manifesto about oysters that Rowan first wrote for Lucky Peach, a very popular food magazine that has sadly gone under. I asked Rowan if I could republish it on In A Half Shell because it captures all of the modern ostreaphilic values that I believe in. He said yes. So here it is, accompanied by some of photos that I’ve taken over the years on my personal oyster escapades.

Platter of Oysters at Belga Queen

The New Rules of Oyster Eating

A Minor Manifesto

By Rowan Jacobsen

A decade ago, I wrote a book called A Geography of Oysters that celebrated the romance of oysters, the primal rush of slurping a raw denizen of the sea, and the mysteries of molluscan terroir. The book struck a chord, and American oyster culture has been on a gravity-defying trajectory ever since. Great. But since then, the oyster scene has transformed, while oyster know-how hasn’t kept up. There used to be a few dozen places in the country from which you could get great oysters, and a few dozen in which you could eat them. Now there are hundreds. Yet with every bored banker throwing a few oyster cages off his dock, and every dive bistro reinventing itself as an oyster bar, I’ve never seen so many scrawny, mangled oysters going down so many clueless gullets in my life. Time for a primer. Here are 20 rules for choosing—and dispatching—oysters. Use them, set your friends straight, and for god’s sake tell your servers. Viva la revolución.

#1 Know Your Oceans

The Atlantic and Pacific Oceans taste different. Nobody talks about this, but it’s key to understanding oysters, which draw most of their flavor from the waters they live in. The Atlantic is a pure, sharp brine, while the Pacific is sweeter and more kelpy, like miso soup. Keeping that in mind can help steer you toward your oysters of preference, especially if you also:

#2 Know Your Species

Most of the oysters consumed in North America are either the Eastern oyster or the Pacific oyster. The Eastern grows from the Eastern Seaboard to the Gulf of Mexico. The Pacific grows (yes, you guessed it) on the Pacific coast, from BC to Baja. The Eastern tastes like brine and broth with a sweet-corn finish. The Pacific tastes like cucumber or watermelon rind. Hugely different. Most people strongly prefer one or the other. A classic example of an Eastern oyster would be an Island Creek, from Duxbury Bay, Massachusetts. A classic Pacific would be a Hama Hama from Washington’s Hood Canal. There are also four other minor species of oysters you might encounter. Kumamotos are like baby Pacifics and have even more of that green melon flavor. European Flats, also known as Belons, are the native oyster of Europe and taste like a battery terminal covered in iodine. Olympias, the only oyster native to the west coast, are tiny and taste like a Bloody Mary. New Zealand Flats, the native oyster of New Zealand, are closely related to the European Flat and are equally ferocious. They are only now becoming available in the United States. Try one if you dare.

Array of Oysters in Sheraton Hong Kong

#3 Salty Places Make Salty Oysters

All day long, oysters pump seawater through their bodies, filtering out the plankton. They become just as salty as their environment—which can vary a lot. The upper section of Chesapeake Bay has only one third the salinity of the ocean. Estuaries like Puget Sound and the Gulf of St Lawrence are in between. If you’re a full-on brine hound, look for oysters grown in pure ocean water, like Chathams or Hog Island Sweetwaters. If you prefer an oyster with a fresh mineral bite, look for oysters tucked near river mouths, like Goose Points. If you prefer balance, split the difference. Oysterater maps all the world’s oysters, so you can make a pretty good guess about salinity and water temp, which will help you to:

#4 Follow the Frost Line

Oysters are strongly seasonal. They eat algae, which generally has a big bloom in the spring as soon as water temperatures begin to warm, proliferates through the summer when sunlight is abundant, tails off in the fall, and goes dormant in winter. Oysters go into hibernation in the winter when their food supply disappears, just like a bear. To survive the winter dormancy, they stuff themselves in late fall. They get plump and sweet, then live off their reserves. By early spring, they are emaciated. So: Most oysters I know are best from November through January. Far northern oysters, which have to survive the longest dormancy, can be crazy sweet around Thanksgiving or Christmas. They also suck in March and April, when southern and Pacific oysters have already been feeding and fattening for a month or two. Following these trends will lead you directly to Rule #5:

Oyster Sorting at Fishers Island

#5 Don’t Settle for Skinny Oysters

More often than not, the oysters served in raw bars look like this. Shrunken gray ghosts in a pool of seawater. Those oysters are running on fumes. No fat, no glycogen, no reserves, no sweetness. They’re just going to taste like saltwater. An oyster should be plump and opaque, completely filling the shell, like these Beauregard Islands here. That photo was taken in April, when Gulf Coast oysters have been feeding heavily for months, but Northern oysters are still sleepy and starved. Among other things, this means:

#6 Don’t Diss the South

I’m so bored with northern chefs telling me they don’t serve southern oysters because southern oysters aren’t salty, firm, or safe. These chefs haven’t kept up with the times. It used to be that the last great wild oyster harvests came from Chesapeake Bay and the Gulf of Mexico, so these were the only southern oysters most people had ever tasted. And true, wild oysters are dredged by the ton and sold by the sack; they get none of the pampering of farmed oysters and tend to be gnarled and muddy. They also tend to be less salty, because wild oysters thrive in brackish waters—like Chesapeake Bay and the Louisiana coast—where their many saltwater-loving predators can’t go. That’s how the South got a reputation for bland, skanky oysters. But in the past few years, growers in the Southeast and Gulf Coast have been using state-of-the-art gear to farm oysters in super salty waters, and they are cranking out some of the briniest—and best—oysters in the country, such as Virginia’s Sewansecotts and Alabama’s Murder Points. You probably already realized this also means:

Lane Zirlott holding Murder Point Oysters

#7 Don’t Diss the Farm

Almost all oysters are farmed these days, and that’s a good thing. The debacle of salmon and shrimp farming has conditioned everybody to think aquaculture is automatically bad, but shellfish aquaculture is actually the greenest form of protein production on the planet, because shellfish get all their food by filtering algae out of the water. You just put baby oysters in the water and take out market-size oysters two years later, leaving the water cleaner than you found it. Win, win. Also, oysters don’t move, so there’s no such thing as a free-range oyster. A farmed oyster gets much better (i.e., roomier) living conditions than its wild kin. Choose the farmed ones. Support the farmer. And forget the R rule (which suggests eating oysters only during months that have an R in them, i.e., September–April); that applied only to wild oysters.

#8 Don’t Settle for Scrambled Oysters

Most of the oysters served in restaurants have been butchered in ways that serious oyster people find completely unacceptable. And most of the people eating oysters have no clue. The web is littered with horror shots of oysters that were apparently opened by Hannibal Lecter. Here’s a beaut from the Village Voice. What the hell happened to those things? If you get served oysters that look like this, don’t go back. The muscles have been hacked and the bellies have been shredded, causing the juices to spill out into the shell. Pretty much every shot in this article on “Cool NYC Oyster Bars” is a crime scene. A proper oyster should fill its shell with meat, its liquor still safely running through its veins, waiting to burst when you bite. Here’s a lovely Grand Cru from Washington. Note the smoothly severed muscle and the unmolested belly. The mantle looks perfect. Want more oysters like this? Then:

Chef Ryan Prewitt of Peche New Orleans Shucking an Oyster

#9 Get as Close to the Shucker as Possible

What do you do when you walk into a sushi bar? Huddle in a distant corner with your nose buried in a copy of The Tale of Genji? No, you belly up to the bar and try to mind-meld with the chef. You want his knowledge, her approval, and their best shit. Same goes for oyster bars. Sit at the counter where you can see the oysters and the shuckers. Ask them questions. Suck up. They know what’s good better than anyone else in the building. Pretty soon, they’ll be sliding you treats.

#10 Avoid Dilettante Restaurants

The corollary to Rule #9 is that the oysters served at places that don’t have a designated shucker—even very famous, high-end ones—are often laughably bad. These may be great chefs, but they aren’t on the front lines, chatting with the oyster growers every day, and they haven’t put in thousands of hours at the shucking station. If the restaurant doesn’t have a full-time shucker, don’t go there for the oysters. Just take another look at the victims in that Cool NYC Oyster Bars article. These are the kinds of places to avoid. (Except for Grand Banks, which didn’t get an oyster photo—ironically, since they actually know how to shuck.)

#11 Get as Close to the Grower as Possible

It used to be hard to find great, knowledgeable shuckers, but the bar got raised a few years ago when some of the best oyster growers began opening their own eateries, with Hog Island, Rappahannock River, and Island Creek leading the charge. These growers cared deeply about the things that give oysters character, and they trained their staffs accordingly. Suddenly, we’re seeing oysters that are more perfect than anything we’ve seen before, presented by shuckers and servers who are incredibly knowledgeable. We’re even seeing things like species, provenance, and cultivation technique listed right on menus. Now a new wave of growers has opened places, like Matunuck Oyster Bar and Hama Hama Oyster Saloon, and more are on the way. This kind of vertical integration significantly shortens the supply chain, which is key, because:

Oyster Farmer Looking at Crop in Wellfleet at Sunrise

#12 Freshness Is All

An oyster carries the still-living sea within it. And even though an oyster is alive until the moment it’s shucked, that marine spark diminishes with every moment it’s separated from La Mer. Unfortunately, oysters can survive weeks out of the water, and many you find in restaurants (especially ones that don’t specialize in oysters) are that old. Find places that get oysters straight out of the water and serve them within a day or two. (Or, see Rule #19.) When you get these sparkly ones, you’ll instantly understand why it only makes sense to:

#13 Eat Them Naked

A great oyster is masked by accouterments of any kind, even snazzy ones. Lemon, mignonette, et al. are fine, they just completely cover the flavor of the oyster. All a great oyster needs is a good chaser (Rule #15). On the other hand:

#14 Know When to Ignore Rule #13

Not all oysters are great. Plenty could use a little help. Honestly, sometimes it’s more fun to eat oysters you don’t have to feel guilty for dishonoring. Standing at a bar in New Orleans, eating big, sloppy, dredged oysters right off the counter, is not the time for nude gustation. More horseradish, please!

Garnished Oysters

#15 The Thrill of the Chase

The drink that chases your oyster is almost as important as the oyster itself. Most oysters are quite salty and have a sea finish that goes on forever. It’s the job of the booze to stop that finish in its tracks. Lots of things work well (my general rule is that wine, sake, and martinis go better with Pacific oysters; beer and Bloody Marys with Eastern oysters; but exceptions abound), just make sure you have something at the ready. Bonus: It gets you drunk.

#16 Ice Is Nice, and Will Suffice

Americans consume lots of things too cold. Hard cider, cheese, potato salad. Oysters are not one of them. Cold firms up an oyster and makes it crisp and refreshing. A good oyster bar knows this and serves its oysters nestled deep into a frosty bed of shaved ice. (Cube ice melts too fast.) If your oysters arrive lukewarm, that’s a red flag.

#17 Nothing Beats a Firm Bottom

Now we’re on to the advanced rules. It used to be that all oysters were “farmed” on a bay bottom or an intertidal beach, as they would grow in the wild. But as growing techniques have evolved, and more and more oysters are grown in off-bottom trays and cages, where life is easier and predators nonexistent, it’s become clear that there’s no substitute for planting an oyster on the bottom and allowing it to grow naturally for its last year or two before harvest. In submerged cages, oysters can grow very quickly and easily; they get long, brittle shells and softer meats. Thrown down in the sand or gravel, they’re forced to toughen up. They grow more slowly and develop rounder, deeper, stronger shells. They get bigger bellies, firmer muscles, and richer flavor. Some of my favorite bottom-planted oysters are Colville Bays, Moonstones, Mystics, Cotuits, Pemaquids, Glidden Points, Totten Inlet Virginicas, and Kumamotos from Chapman Cove.

Bottom Raised Pacific Oysters at Taylor Shellfish Farms

#18 If Nature Didn’t Give You a Firm Bottom, Try Tumbling

Of course, bottom-planting works only when you have a firm and easily accessible bottom. In most places, the bottom is too muddy or too deep. Years ago, an innovative Vancouver Islander named Keith Reid discovered that if he periodically tumbled his tray-farmed oysters in a mechanical tumbler (kind of like a portable cement mixer), it would chip off their soft growing edge and force them to “cup up.” They had to clamp shut every time they got tumbled, which gave their muscles a workout. They wound up the molluscan equivalent of elfin Olympic gymnasts with six-pack abs. As a bonus, they had beautifully polished shells. Those oysters were Kusshis, and everybody fell for the little cuties. Now many growers tumble. Some use mechanical tumblers, others let the tides do it for them. Look for Chelsea Gem, Shigoku, Blue Pool, and Chunu.

#19 Go Shuck Yourself

The surest way to ensure ultra-fresh oysters is to skip all the middle men and have them shipped directly to you from the grower. You will save a ton of money. And you will have epic parties. Julie keeps an list of recommended suppliers who (A) grow great oysters, and (B) have the shipping part under control. Obviously, this only works if you can shuck them when you get them. But this is something every fully functional bon vivant should be able to do. You can learn in about ten minutes. Important: Get a good knife with a strong, thin blade. After a hundred oysters, you’ll be good. Here is an excellent video guide by Canadian shucking champ Patrick McMurray.

#20 Get Religion

You are slurping down dozens of quivering animals who have given their all for this moment. You lucky bastard. No need to fall to your knees, but a silent nod to the fates might be in order. Some days you’re the windshield, some days you’re the bug.

 

 

James Beard Award-winner Rowan Jacobsen is the author of A Geography of Oysters and The Essential Oyster and the founder of the websites Oysterguide (for his opinions) and Oysterater (for everyone else’s).

Oyster Know-HowJanuary 1, 2018

A Handy List of Oyster Shuckers, Caterers and Mobile Raw Bars

I’m a huge fan of shucking my own oysters, but when it’s about planning a celebration or business event, nobody’s got time for that! If you’re less, “do it yourself,” and more about “do it for me,” look no further. Here’s a quick compilation of shucking services, caterers and mobile raw bars from around the country that can help take your event to the next level.

IAHS Oyster Catering IMG_3092

Oyster Shuckers, Mobile Raw Bars & Catering Services

This list just keeps on growing and growing, so I’ve decided to turn it into a database that is searchable, segmentable, filterable and sortable. If you have an established shucking service that you’d like add to this list, fill out this form. I used Airtable to build this and have been obsessed with their platform for over a year! It’s super easy to use and has made keeping track of lots of information fun and simple.

Oyster Education & Curated Tastings

I am taking on a limited number of private clients this summer & fall on the East and West Coast.
Reach out if you’re interested!

 

How to Shuck

I made a shucking video and page just for that. Also, you might like my “How to Enjoy Oysters at Home” post.

Oyster Know-HowAugust 5, 2017

How to Style and Photograph Oysters Like a Pro

If you’re in the food business, you know exactly how important aesthetics are to our perception of quality and deliciousness. We eat with our eyes first, after all! When it comes to styling and photographing oysters, a lot can go wrong, even without you knowing it.

In my early blogging days, I would snap and share every platter of oyster that I consumed. Today, I’m quite a bit more selective about which photos to use and what not to share. Gashed bellies? Denied. Dried meats? Adios. It takes a lot now to make it to my Instagram feed, and it’s for good reason. When I see a popular website or magazine share a photo of crappy oysters, it’s basically perpetuating flawed taste. For true oyster nerds, we grimace (and maybe cry a little on the inside) when a butchered plate of oysters is published or shared by an influential chef or writer. Don’t let bad oyster photography happen to you!

Asking a Styling Pro: Adrienne Anderson

So how do you get it right? If you’re looking for oyster styling inspiration and benchmarking, there’s no better book to reference than The Essential Oyster by Rowan Jacobsen, photographed by David Malosh with food stylist Adrienne Anderson. I’m always in awe of good food styling and framing. Adrienne was kind enough to offer up her sage advice about her craft to us.

What do you think is the most challenging aspect of styling oysters and how do you manage it?

The biggest challenge with any kind of styling project is answering the question Why I am doing this? Why do I need to add this image to the world? Am I an oyster farmer who wants to sell a lot of product? Am I a scientist who wants to highlight some particular feature that’s unusual to the organism? Am I on social media trying to get some likes? Is my motivation financial, intellectual, artistic? Once you know where you’re going, you’ll have a much easier time getting there.

As for the technical side of styling oysters, the hardest part is that you are dealing with a living organism that has zero interest in your styling agenda. Oysters, like all of us, would rather not be vivisected with sharp knives and put on display. So they’re not exactly going to pose for the camera. If you want to shoot six great-looking oysters, you should plan to start with at least two dozen. The bigger sample you can start with, the better your outcome will be.

What are some tips or tricks that might help someone who’s trying to get the perfect oyster shot?

Again, first you need to know what the “perfect shot” means to you. The Scandinavian style of food photography that took off ten years ago is still going strong – we see this all over Instagram and it’s still the dominant style of books and magazines. Cool natural light, wabi-sabi props and surfaces, lots of graphic overhead studio shots interspersed with images of wild locations. (Ditte Isager’s photography for the original Noma cookbook is still the gold standard for this style.) If you want this look, try setting up your shot in a darkish room next to a bright window. Use only natural light, and keep the props minimal and zen.

In general, I always say that the number one rule of food styling is wet is beautiful. Wetness makes highlights, highlights make contrast, and contrast makes a dynamic image. Try adding a little extra brine if the oyster is dry, try tilting the shell in different ways to see how the light plays off it, try using matte props so the oyster is the only thing shining.

That said, don’t go coating your oysters with shellac or something just to make them shine. Show some respect to the oyster. Eat it when you’re done. If you’ve done something heinous to the creature just to get an image, it was not worth it. In The Old Days, stylists used to use shoe polish and Maggi seasoning to make barely cooked turkeys look roasted and bronzed. Or Poligrip to glue sandwiches together. Or they would stuff apple pies with mashed potatoes and paper towels to make them look full and “abundant.” All that food ended up in the garbage when the shoot was over. Which seems to me like the height of human stupidity.

What was your favorite oyster staging for The Essential Oyster and why?

Hmm…all of them? Can I say that? It really was a dream project to work on. When we pitched the idea for the images to Bloomsbury, Rowan’s publisher, we had a high-concept idea where we would tie each image to the terroir of its oyster. I’m looking back at my original email from 2015 now and I actually proposed that we would “capture the minerality of a Moonstone by shooting it on a flinty hand-poured concrete slab with Point Judith sand as the substrate.” Needless to say, when the budget and timeline came in, we had to axe the idea of mixing our own concrete. But David Malosh and I did make many of the props ourselves, and the idea of terroir still surfaced in many of the images. The shot of Olympias on weathered copper, for example. I love the metallic flavor of those oysters so we used salt water to develop a patina on those copper sheets.

If I had to pick an absolute favorite, I’d say it has to be the spread of Hama Hama oysters. The wood and moss came from the forest that looms over the tidal flats on the James family land where they grow their oysters. It’s one of the most beautiful places to get lost; it looks like the Forest Moon of Endor. You half-expect an ewok to come down a trail with an oyster knife. To me, images are beautiful when they fix a transitory moment in the eternal, and that shot will always be my secret doorway to that place.

Every oyster in the book is shucked flawlessly. Was it a conscious decision to open each one carefully and precisely? How do you feel when you see a magazine spread today that features massacred oysters? What would you say to the people responsible?

Oh, it was definitely my intention to open each one carefully and precisely…but anyone’s who’s shucked a few oysters knows that the road to (s)hell is paved with good intentions. Some of the shells crumbled in my hands, some of the meats turned out thin and listless, some beautiful rare oysters nearly met their end when they got trapped on FedEx truck and I had to drive to Queens to rescue them from certain death in a 110-degree warehouse. Just a few of the many reasons why you always want to procure a few extras if you can.

On the question of magazines – that’s touchy! I count many of them as clients, and there are some photo editors who really know their stuff and do a great job. But to the merchants of schlock who peddle images of mangled oysters (I’m looking at you, internet), I say slow down. Find the experts. There are so many talented people working in the oyster industry who are willing—even eager—to share their knowledge if you just ask them. And there are some incredibly talented shuckers working the restaurant circuit whose skills deserve to featured in their own right (the crew at Kimball House in Decatur, GA, at Oyster Club in Mystic, CT, and at Pêche in New Orleans all jump to mind, and don’t even get me started on the perfection of Joe Beef). But you have to go out and meet these people; you have to experience what they do firsthand. You’ll never get it by googling.

Finally, for my own technical curiosity, when do you shuck the oysters for your shoot? Do you set up the staging and then shuck? Or shuck, place and then style around it? Can you pre-shuck to some extent?

For The Essential Oyster, one of the big challenges was making each image look different from the next. It was like doing 100 shots of steaks: sure, a rib-eye is totally different from a porterhouse…but is it really? You have to find a way to blow up the nuances. With oysters, you have to find a way to see the same salty blob as fresh and new. On a book of this scope, I also needed to make sure the pacing had a rhythm to it: changing up the scale of each shot, alternating light and dark palettes, varying the angle of the composition. David and I were shooting the images out of order over several months, so as we finished each shot he would print a Polaroid and pin it to the wall according to its page number. Then we’d fill in the blanks as we finished each image. These bigger storyboard arcs totally occupied my mind, so whenever it was possible to shuck the oysters in advance for a particular shot and keep them in the fridge, I did. Maybe an hour or two. Anything to buy a little time to figure out the creative flow.

And speaking of creative flow, I have to say that David is actually a much better shucker that I am. He can operate a camera with one hand and shuck an oyster with the other. It’s like watching an octopus solve a Rubik’s cube. I highly recommend working with him if you ever get the chance.

Buy the book on Amazon.

Other Resources

STYLING GUIDE: A month ago, I had the opportunity to work with a fabulous champagne brand and their creative agency on a media event and booklet. Although I wasn’t able to attend their shoot, I put together a little cheat sheet of “what to do / what not to do” when it comes to oyster presentation. Download the Oyster Shucking (PDF)

HOW TO SHUCK: Watch my own video

SOURCING PROPS: Check out the Oyster Concierge and Gift Wish List for ideas

Oyster Know-HowJune 11, 2017

Is Wet Storage Good for Oyster Culture?

Wet storage is one of the most contentious oyster topics out there, but it barely registers on the bivalve-buzz-o-meter. It’s not particularly cool or sexy, but it’s worth knowing about if you want to be in-the-know. I’ve been contemplating this topic for over a year now and my thoughts still bounce back and forth. But I’m just going to post what I’ve got for now and iterate. Comments, questions, thoughts are welcome!

The idea behind wet storage is simple. They exist to temporarily hold oysters, or other live seafood so that they don’t die while they’re on their way to meet certain death. (Your absentminded uncle’s fancy saltwater aquarium is just a long-term wet storage system.) Anyway, you’ve probably seen an example of it at a fish market or high-end Chinese restaurant. There are many kinds of wet storage systems and few are straightforward.

Why does wet storage even matter to me? Let’s start with a little context.

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Oyster Know-HowFebruary 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.

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