Gastronomy student Allison Keir shares her thoughts on the “oyster revival” in the next of our summer blog series, Perspective from Anthropology of Food.
Over the last ten years, oysters have been making a come back into the mainstream food scene. Oyster bars and buck-a-shuck happy hours are popping up all around the metropolitan areas. Why, might you ask, is this re-emergence happening? About a hundred years ago there was an abundance of oyster beds along our coastlines that were slowly depleted from pollution, overfishing, and destruction. Many people don’t know that New York Harbor was once known to be the mecca for harvesting oysters until consumers started getting sick from eating the raw shellfish. Thus, oysters as a sellable food product were shut down and slowly drifted from the food scene. Author Mark Kurlansky recounts the history of oysters once dominating the food scene of New York Harbor in The Big Oyster: History on the Half Shell. “Before the 20th century, when people thought of New York, they thought of oysters,” Kurlansky writes (2006:95).
At the time, what policy makers and the locals didn’t understand was that it wasn’t the oysters that were bad for consumers; it was the sewage that was being dumped right into the same water from which the oysters were harvested. Later on, the Clean Water Act was created, and oysters and other shellfish were no longer permitted for harvest in water that wasn’t within “Class A” water quality. Not only did this protect our seafood, it helped to clean our waterways. Since then, oysters have been slowly making their way back into the food scene.
Oysters are in a revival and are thriving in a new socialite food scene filled with consumers who are becoming more aware of the environmental benefits of oysters. It only takes one of these bouldering bivalves to filter up to 50 gallons of water per day. Oysters are also one of the most sustainable forms of protein out there; in comparison to beef, their digestive systems reduce and live off waste and other toxins in our waterways, turning the waste into food for themselves and cleaner water for us! They are naturally reducing the nitrogen levels in our waterways that have been a major component in ocean acidification and the depletion of our marine life.
Considering the cost of each oyster at any given raw bar, you could favor oysters as the elite class of mollusks. The pure deliciousness of eating fresh raw oysters while sipping on some wine or micro brew beer has gotten many consumers in the mainstream food scene hooked. Ironically you don’t even need a hook to catch an oyster! Still, oysters are an acquired taste and many people see them as blubbery textured creatures with a marshy flavor, while others think of them as a delicate salty and sweet jewel of the ocean that is comparable to kissing the sea.
So what is driving the surge in popularity for this tasty bivalve? While some consumers may be aware of the ecological benefits of protecting our oyster beds, it is possible that the taste for oysters is not just an ecological, but also a social phenomenon. Oysters have emerged back into the mainstream food scene and are being wined and dined with all walks of life. You don’t have to go down to the docks to see oysters being served on the half shell. You can just go to your local watering hole down the street or make a reservation at a nearby seafood restaurant so you can sit at the raw bar and enjoy the experience of watching the oysters get shucked!