By Jennifer Brule`
Jennifer Brule` is a classically trained chef, food writer and mother. Each of her hip and sassy columns feature an ingredient demystified with humor and facts. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Oysters have forever been the object of myth and intrigue. Coveted by some because of their crisp, delicately salty, oceanic flavor. Repulsive to others because of their gelatinous, gray appearance. And of course, who can discount the bivalve’s infamous, if not altogether dubious aphrodisiac reputation.
When live oysters are eaten raw, eager diners wedge the shellfish open, drizzle them with a bit of lemon, cocktail sauce or maybe sauce mignonette (a classic French sauce of vinegar, shallots, parsley and peppercorns), and slide them off the shells into their mouths where they ease down the gullet and into the gastric abyss. A brief, but addicting experience for those who favor them.
But oysters are also lovely grilled right in their shells on top of a hot grate. Or heaped into a wet burlap bag, as southerners like, and roasted outdoors. There’s the cornmeal-dredged and fried recipe with a side of tartar sauce. The Native Americans perfected oyster stew. And a colonial Chesapeake Bay treat was the oyster pie. There are a thousand ways to enjoy eating oysters.
The Romans are credited with first discovering oysters in the cold waters of Britain, bringing them back to Rome where they cultivated them in the 4th century B.C.. It is thought that they appreciated the oysters legendary properties of l’amour and paid a premium for them, in gold. One could say that the oyster was to ancient Romans, as Viagra is to American baby boomers.
The oysters’ famed aphrodisiac qualities seem to be a mix of fact and fiction. Oysters do contain a high amount of zinc. Zinc controls progesterone levels in men, a lack of which can cause male impotence. And the word ‘aphrodisiac’ came about when the Aphrodite, the Greek goddess of love, popped forth from the sea on an oyster shell and gave birth to Eros. The combination of fact and fable seem to have forever imbedded into our minds, the oysters’ reputation.
Today, in the U.S., oysters are mainly cultivated off the shores of Long Island, the Gulf coast of Louisiana, the Chesapeake Bay and in the waters off Washington state.
A female oyster releases between 10 and 100 million eggs annually. Of these, only a very few will live to become larvae and grow into mature oysters. Most will be eaten up while in the larvae stage by fish.
After 1 and ½ years (in warm water) or 5 years (in colder water) the oyster will be between 2 and 6 inches in length and be ready to harvest.
When looking at a shucked oyster it’s hard to imagine that it is actually an animal, but it is. It breathes much like a fish does, it has kidneys, and a heart that pumps clear blood through blood vessels. It even has a male or female gender. It is at this point though, that the oyster takes a sharp U-turn in the ‘normal animal’ road. You see, although every oyster is either male or female, at least once in an oyster’s life span, it will switch genders (their little oyster parents seem to be okay with this, though).
Ah, oysters. You may love to slurp them down, raw by the dozens or prefer them grilled, fried, baked or broiled. You may avoid them altogether, or devour them for the aforementioned side-effects. No matter how you feel about them, oysters are anything but boring.