Last week, I had the opportunity to talk oysters at the Cloud Room as part of the Seattle Litcrawl. I interviewed chef Renee Erickson about her relationship to oysters, and got to read along with super-forager Langdon Cook. Since its hard to write something new about eating oysters, I decided to focus on oyster's shells, which are pretty compelling in themselves. Here's the text of my talk.
I want to talk a little bit about the least delicious part of the oyster, the shell, because oyster shells have been facing some challenges recently, and they will probably face a lot more in the future. And also because oyster shells are really tough; twice in hand to hand combat with an oyster, I have come out a loser, but more on that later.
One of the true delights of the oyster is the contrast between its cool, moist and tender flesh, and the rugged shell that protects it from intruders including us. It’s the barricade that keeps our favorite mollusk so fat and tender. When oysters are tumbled around in the surf, or by oyster farmers, the growing edge of their shell gets knocked off and the cup deepens, making for an even fatter chunk of oyster flesh. On estuary shores, oyster shells make a nursery reef for baby oysters to cling to before they become gnarled and thorny adults.
I know this from an incident in BC, when I tried to swim through an inlet when the tide was too low. Before I turned around at the futile effort, I found up pulling my barely floating body across the shallow bed, with dozens of tiny scratches on my palms, and one or two on my knees from when I failed to keep my legs up.
Of course, oysters aren’t born so craggy. And it’s kind of incredible that they ever get that way. They come into the world naked, andaftera couple of weeks of free-swimming, they settle down to build a shell around themselves, grabbing calcium rich molecules from the surrounding seawater and then secrete protein and calcium to form a shell. As they grow, they renovate their homes: those ridges on the shells are a reminder of each remodeling.
Each layer makes the oyster stronger, something I learned when I was a novice cook in a large los Angeles restaurant, and I was designated shucker for all the oyster plates. Looking back, this may not have been a great deal for our customers, but I suppose there is no other way to learn how to shuck an oyster than to slit a few bellies and leave a few shell fragments there for a customer to pick out and complain about.
The pressure of a weekend night at the restaurant only made my shucking hands shake more, but I had almost gotten the hang of opening the ruffled pacific oysters that were regularly served, when our chef pulled an extra net bag out of the cold drawer/ He had gotten his hands on some belons—European flats, wide as hockey pucks, but thinner and as tightly latched as any oyster I’ve ever touched. He opened one for me to taste. Now, of you have grown used to the pleasant briny snap of most Pacific Northwest oysters, you might not recognize the sharp iodine sizzle of a belon. I knew it would be profoundly uncool to be put off by this strange and difficultly sourced oyster, so I declared a love for it (in the same way that I would later claim to love Japanese noise music in the presence of cool friends).
As the evenings tickets piled up, I had to shuck a lot of oysters which went ok, until someone ordered the Belons. Each Belon was as closed as a stone. I wheedled my rounded shucking knife into what I thought was the proper entry point: no luck. My more experienced friend helped me with one oyster, and after a bit of straining herself, got it open. But there were five more Belons to go. After failing with the rounded Dexter knife, I reached for a pointier shucker, the one that looked like a jailhouse shiv. By this point the towel I had wrapped around the recalcitrant oyster had slipped to the side, and so, the inevitable happened. My blade slipped off the oyster and straight into the meaty part of my thumb.
So embarrassed that I barely felt the pain, I thought to finish the oyster plate, but my friend noticed my stab wound and took over for me. I was off, humiliated, to the emergency room, where I got 3 or four stitches and was declared lucky that the knife hadn’t hit a nearby nerve.
It took time, energy and not a little luck for that shell to get so murderously tough:
Baby oysters have to cobble together their shells in open water and if water is too acidic, the critical molecules for shell building become scarce. Sometimes life in the ocean is harsh and a new generation of oyster larvae will fail to shell up. Though this isn’t unusual, but in 2007-9, two of the four major west coast oyster hatcheries lost 70-80 percent of their seed. The little mollusks had been unable to coat themselves to survive the ordeal of life in the sea. Tenderness, without a protective skin of toughness, leaves life utterly unprotected.
There are natural reasons for acidified water. We live in a region where upwelling is a frequent phenomenon: the warmer top layer of the ocean is occasionally blown away, exposing colder more caustic waters from deep below the surface that can then enter shallower waters where oysters grow.
These cycles are emphasized, however by human activity. Nitrogenous pollution can cause dead zones, where water ph is often low. And the ocean also serves as the world’s carbon sponge. When atmospheric carbon is dissolved in water, it becomes carbonic acid. How much this anthropogenic acidification is already in effect and how much it is a looming threat to be reckoned with in the future is a question that demands more research, and engenders some pretty caustic debates, but it seems likely that human pollution is already amplifying natural cycles of more acid waters.
There are, for the moment, some workarounds for the acidity issue; good news for oyster lovers like me. Hatcheries are more sophisticated in monitoring now, and will not launch a generation of oysterlings until the water in their tanks is an acceptable ph and carbon concentration. The oyster shell crisis also focused the attentions of the state on the issue of acidification; Governors Gregoire and Inslee managed to secure some funding to study the issue. Increased monitoring can help make ph changes more predictable, and eelgrass restoration may make estuaries more resilient. Algae seems very promising right now: The Paul Allen Foundation recently produced a big grant to investigate the use of cultivated seaweed to help sweeten corrosive ocean waters.
The increasingly sour seas, are of course much much more than an oyster problem. All kinds of creatures must struggle against it: Coral, clams, crabs, shrimp and tiny shelled creatures like pterapods, which feed salmon and other species, are all under duress by the changing seas; wasting vital energy as they struggle to find calcium-carbonate molecules with which to build their skeletons. But because oysters bring 100s of millions of dollars into the state, the particular fate of Pacific Northwest oyster shells may help focus much needed attention on the state of our waters.
Oysters aren’t particularly easy to identify with. They aren’t cute; they aren’t especially smart; they don’t even have a ring of googly eyes on their mantles like scallops do. But there is something about the way we eat oysters: the hard shell and that naked oyster that is so much more emotional than most forms of eating; it feels just a minute like the line between the consumer and the consumed is blurred. And maybe that connection is enough identification to help oysters become a rallying cry for ocean health. If it takes a threat to our beloved delicacy for us to help paint a picture of our ocean’s troubles then that might be a good thing.