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|Written by Daniel Polgar|
|Wednesday, 08 December 2010 00:00|
One of the minor tragedies of living in an inland city in the 21st century is the relative scarcity of fresh oysters. I once mentioned to a friend that one of my favourite restaurants in Ottawa is the Whalesbone, where one can order a platter of 18 oysters, containing up to six different varieties of the mollusc, from both the Atlantic and Pacific coasts of Canada, for $45. When she said that when she was growing up in the Philippines, her family had been able to obtain just-caught oysters by the bucketful for only a handful of pesos, I almost choked with envy. A true taste for oysters can become very hard to satisfy, especially when they cost $2 to 3$ apiece - and it is dismaying to hear that those living in other places, or in different centuries, had a much easier time indulging their enthusiasm for the little molluscs.
Humans have been eating oysters in great quantities for a very long time. In 18th-century Venice, the notorious seducer Casanova's habit of eating fifty a day was unremarkable by the standards of other historic consumers. Jean-Anthelme Brillat-Savarin, in his Physiology of Taste, writes of hungry Frenchmen of the Revolutionary era who would regularly consume a gross - a dozen dozen - oysters at a single sitting. On one occasion, he challenged an ostreaphile friend to eat as many as he could hold before moving on to the subsequent courses of dinner. Brillat-Savarin kept pace for the first three dozen, and then proceeded to watch as his dining companion continued on to his 32nd dozen, before Brillat-Savarin cut him off, impatient to get on with the rest of the meal. Michel de Montaigne, the 16th-century French essayist, referred to one doctor who ate 30 to 40 dozen a day. King Henry IV of France was known to eat 300 as an appetizer.
Going back even farther in European history, Emperor Nero bragged that he could tell where in the Roman Empire any oyster originated simply by its taste. The Romans, in fact, loved oysters so much that they shipped them from northern France on ice-packed carts, replenished from ice-houses especially built for that purpose along the route. This transportation method continued to be used in France until the middle of the 19th century - and was duplicated in the United States, as well, where Abraham Lincoln hosted oyster parties in Springfield, Illinois.
Why have oysters been so popular for so long? The answers are simple enough: they were abundant - much more so than they are today, as stocks worldwide have been declining for over a century - and therefore cheap; easy to harvest and prepare (especially if one had servants to do the shucking); and extremely healthy. Raw oysters are excellent sources of iron, zinc, selenium, and vitamin B12. One of the proposed theories offered to explain the prevalent but largely unproven myth that oysters are aphrodisiacs is that anyone living before the era of modern medicine who regularly ate oysters would simply tend to be much healthier than someone who did not, and would therefore be more energetic - in all aspects of life. One could perhaps think of them as nature's power bar.
Oysters today are much less prevalent, and have consequently become an expensive delicacy - something eaten, with champagne, in fancy hotel bars. As they have disappeared from most non-coastal, non-upscale restaurants, they have become perceived as more exotic, more absurd, and sometimes even threatening. People who have never eaten them avoid them, believing them to be slimy (which they are not - if they are good and fresh), strong-tasting (they should - again, if they are fresh - have a delicate taste, mostly of seawater), and dangerous. (This last charge can very occasionally be true. One of the bacteria sometimes found in oysters, Vibrio vulnificus, most commonly in those from the US Gulf Coast, is deadlier than both salmonella and E. coli. bacteria.)
However, there are, I believe, several good reasons why oysters should become more popular. First, they are good for the environment; they can act as filters, removing toxins from the seawater they reside in. In fact, a few cultivated oyster beds have already been established on the east coast of the United States for primarily environmental reasons. And 95% of oyster harvesting is done sustainably, without harming the surrounding ecosystem. (The remaining 5% are dredged, which can damage aquatic habitats and catch other species along with the oysters.)
Second, oysters can be suitable eating for vegetarians and vegans. In terms of consciousness and sensitivity to pain, oysters are much closer to plants than to animals. (This excellent article from Slate.com notes that "even the strictest ethicist should feel comfortable eating [oysters] by the boatload.") Peter Singer, the Australian philosopher and guru of the animal rights movement, has even, at times, advocated the eating of oysters (though, admittedly, he has wavered back and forth on the issue over the years).
Finally, and most importantly, they are tasty. Served freshly shucked, on a bed of ice, unadornedexcept for maybe a slice of lemon or a few threads of horseradish, they are the ultimate light, casual, fun-to-eat snack.
I admit the price is still an issue. But my hope is that, if more people eat them, supply will increase to meet the demand - and then, if the little charts in my introductory economics textbook are correct, the price should correspondingly decrease. I may never be able to afford to eat oysters by the gross - or even the bucketful - but if I could see that $45 price on the Shucker's Platter at the Whalesbone come down even a little, I would be very happy.
The best place for oysters in Ottawa is The Whalesbone, a cosy and fun establishment at Bank and Gladstone. If you're more interested in shucking and serving them yourself, you can get an ice-filled bag of them at Lapointe's, in the Market. (And, if you don't know how to shuck an oyster, there's plenty of help available.)
To read more about them, consult MFK Fisher's gem Consider the Oyster or Eleanor Clark's The Oysters of Locmariaquer. For some fun facts and anecdotes about the consumption of oysters - several of which were used in this article - read the relevant essay Waverly Root's Food.
Daniel Polgar was born in Vienna, but has since lived in Prague, Berlin, Paris, and Los Angeles, and now resides in Ottawa. He enjoys going to the theatre, conversing with friends in cafes, and sitting at home reading by the fireplace, with his beagle Fred lying at his feet.