Stereotypically, raw oysters are a high roller’s food. A tray of raw oysters on the half shell, carefully laid on a bed of ice and accompanied by tiny forks and fancy sauces seems to be the culinary equivalent of a flashy car or a designer handbag. It calls to mind champagne, chandeliers, and monocles. Raw oysters seem to be a prelude, a suggestion of yet more decadent courses to come. The very idea of it: an overfed diner, swallowing a whole living creature, seems grotesque, the product of a more primitive age.
The ecological and ethical reality of the Eastern Oyster, Crassotrea virginica, couldn’t be farther from this image. Food ethicists have stressed the importance of avoiding or reducing meat consumption for a sustainable diet — meat production causes a tremendous amount of greenhouse gases, and livestock is often raised on factory farms before being shipped across the country in C02 belching trucks. Oysters, on the other hand, do not contribute to greenhouse gasses or require large-scale factory farming. In fact, oysters filter the water they are living in and feeding from, removing algae and nitrogen that would otherwise choke other organisms out of the ecosystem. The animals are such good filters that environmental groups across the country have begun programs to plant oyster beds in order to improve water quality, most famously in New York Harbor. For those keeping score at home, if eaten locally, farmed oysters may even be a net plus for the environment, hardly what’s typically associated with champagne swilling gourmands. With seemingly every hot new restaurant bragging of its commitment to ethical and local cuisine, I wondered: could the decadent raw oyster really fit into up-to-date approach to enjoying food?
That is how I found myself slurping oyster after oyster on a small aluminum motorboat on Point Judith Pond near Narragansett, RI early on a misty morning last week. I was riding along with Cindy and John West, the husband and wife team that run the farm that produces Moonstone Oysters, the trade name they use for their stock. Their oysters are a delicacy: they’re served in raw bars nationally, including under the famous vaulted white tile ceiling of the Grand Central Oyster Bar in New York. Standing in my borrowed bright orange rain gear and swaying with the motion of the boat, though, I couldn’t imagine a setting farther from a fancy restaurant, but John kept shucking and passing them along, complete with a rapid-fire anatomy lesson (“here are the growth rings”, “here’s the stomach”). They were delicious.
Boating back and forth between plots, the Wests showed me the basics of how full-sized oysters are raised. To put it very simply: the farm buys tiny immature oysters – referred to as seed — every year. These are “planted” underwater: they’re placed in mesh bags of greater and greater size until they reach sufficient length to sell, about two or three inches. The bags are left underwater in large racks that call to mind a lobster trap on steroids when lifted out of the water with the aid of a motorized winch. All of the growing happens in a large plot of water on Point Judith Pond, within a five-minute boat ride from the dock, and is handled by John and Cindy, with occasional assistance from hired hands and their teenage daughters. The fast-moving summer season requires the couple to be on the water at least six days a week, and the winter brings ice and bitter cold. It’s clearly not easy work, but when they describe the drudgery of the less physical aspects of operating an oyster farm—selling and shipping the oysters, dealing with the relevant land use boards—it’s obvious that they truly enjoy being on the water.
Two things about their farm immediately jumped out at me. First, the oysters receive a tremendous amount of attention before they are brought to market. The animals, whose natural inclination is to grow in clumps, are vigorously shaken to keep them separate and the shells tough, keeping them from becoming “potato chip-y”, as John described it. They estimate that every animal is handled individually three times before being sold, and hundreds of thousands of oysters are brought to market every year. The second point of note is how little needs to be added to the ecosystem to assure the oysters grow to marketable size. There is no food or fertilizer to add. Nothing is electrified, unlike farms that use pumps to guarantee water flow. The oysters are content to feed on and filter plankton and algae already present in the ecosystem. In contrast to farmed salmon, which require a huge amount of electricity and feed, oysters become instantly integrated into their ecosystem. This low-impact approach is part of what drew the Wests into oyster farming. Through government grants, they are helping to replenish wild stocks of oysters, and their farm’s simplicity and sustainability adds a layer of satisfaction to their work.
Because so much depends on the environment, oyster farming is an intensely local practice. The temperature of the water and the availability of food have huge effects on the flavors of the oysters. As Cindy pointed out, “the real oyster connoisseurs know that they’re eating the taste of a whole body of water.” Moonstone Oysters reflect the particular qualities of Point Judith Pond, and John and Cindy are proud of that flavor. At one point John declared that he “wouldn’t eat anything south of New York, because it just doesn’t taste like anything”, as warm water produces larger oysters, which tend to be less flavorful. I mentioned that the French have a word for the unique quality given to wine by a specific plot of land, and John picked up the implication: “On land, they call it, like, terroir? Out here it would be, what, aqua-rroir?”
Oysters don’t have to be fancy, or even crushingly expensive, if you’re able to get them directly from a farmer; Rhode Island has many. I bought a bag of Moonstones to share when I got back to Providence, and can testify that raw oysters make for an ideal activity for sitting around with friends. A plate of finely crushed ice and white wine is nice, but a plastic bucket, chunks of ice, and beer works just as well.
Shucking them at home is moderately difficult, but also part of the fun. Hold the oyster flat side up in a dishtowel and, using a real oyster knife, gradually work the point into the joint between the shells on the thicker side. The shells will eventually separate with a satisfying pop. Slide the edge of the knife all the way around the joint to fully separate the shells. Discard the top shell, disconnect the meat from the bottom shell, and serve.
John suggested that you’re able to tell someone who really likes oysters because they don’t add anything when they eat them. I’m inclined to agree, but for the squeamish, and for variety’s sake, it’s common to garnish with lemon juice, mignonette sauce, or (if you really have to), cocktail sauce.
Stir finely minced shallots into white vinegar, about half a shallot per ¼ cup of vinegar. Add cracked pepper to taste. A little goes a long way.
Stir a liberal amount of horseradish and Tabasco into ketchup.
CHRIS COHEN B’12 slurps oysters like a fat-bellied baron.