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Sex, Death & Oysters: A Half-Shell Lover’s World Tour captures the Houston food writer at his best, offering culinary insight, scientific fact, and offbeat humor as he travels the globe in search of the truth about oysters (including their alleged resemblance to the female anatomy and occasional fatal effects). His five-year adventure led him far from Galveston Bay to places such as France and Ireland, where he questioned many a mollusk expert—harvesters, farmers, and consumers—about the makings of a superior oyster. Walsh has twice won the prestigious James Beard award for excellence in food writing.
Sex, Death & Oysters is a quest. How did it begin?
I intended to write an investigative article about Gulf oysters, pollution, bacteria, and the need for reform. But I ended up with a much bigger story. The peak production of oysters in the Chesapeake Bay was in the late 1800’s; today the bay produces about one percent of its historic peak. By contrast, the peak production of oysters in Galveston Bay was in 2003. We harvest about twice as many oysters now as we did in the late 1800’s. Thanks to the Clean Water Act of 1972, oysters have been coming back. I wanted to report on this “great American oyster renaissance,” so I traveled to oyster-producing areas. I quickly learned that the world’s various oyster cultures don’t get along very well: The gourmet culture on the East and West coasts and an older, blue-collar culture on the Gulf Coast are at war right now. You could say I became an oyster war correspondent.
Were oystermen eager to share their knowledge or just their opinions?
Food writers have been interviewing oystermen since the dawn of type. The standard drill is to go to the oyster beds with the colorful old salt, taste the fresh-shucked mollusk, and jot down the oysterman’s explanations for why it tastes so remarkable—the flavor of the sea, the saltwater meeting the burbling stream, and such. But when the oysterman I met in Whitstable, England, figured out that I had just interviewed his competitor from Colchester, he dropped the poetry and started slamming the other guy’s product. And he assumed the other guy had just done the same thing to him. New England oystermen didn’t trust the Canadian oyster guys, and everybody hates the Gulf Coast fishermen. So I ended up with equal parts oyster poetry and oyster exposé.
Is the future of oysters in farming or harvesting in the wild? I assume environmental factors play a huge role.
French-style oyster farming is done in places where the intertidal area—the area that is dry at low tide and underwater at high tide—is extensive. That’s in the far north, where the tides run thirty or forty feet. In Washington’s Hood Canal, you lease some mud flats, buy a sack of seed oysters, put them on a rack that’s underwater at high tide, and come back every few months to clean them and move them to new sacks as they grow. In eighteen months, you have a product to sell; you can walk down to your rack and grab a bag whenever someone wants to buy one. In Texas, we are at the opposite end of the spectrum: We have extensive wild-oyster reefs and very little management. When the season opens, in November, there is a four-hundred-boat free-for-all, and the reefs are quickly dredged bare. The fishermen have no incentive to conserve: If they don’t grab them, someone else will. So you get a glut followed by a shortage.
Sadly, November oysters are pretty tasteless in the Gulf. By the peak of the season, in March, when Gulf oysters taste best, there are very few left on the public reefs. And Texas has very few private oyster leases and no plans to create any more. There are lots of other ways to do it. On the public oyster reefs of Apalachicola Bay, Florida, and Malpeque Bay, Canada, the fish and game authorities don’t allow dredging. Small fishermen do all the harvesting with old-fashioned oyster tongs. Tonging is easier on the reefs, and it takes a lot longer, so the harvest is stretched out over the season. It also keeps a lot of small-time oyster fishermen in the business. In Louisiana and Connecticut, they have a hybrid system in which big leaseholders with oyster-dredging boats buy seed oysters from a hatchery or a state oyster bed. In this public-private system, the leaseholders create the reefs, grow the oysters to maturity, and manage the harvest while paying the state for the use of the underwater land. Louisiana State University is experimenting with using the rack and bag system to expand the leased areas further.
The future of the Gulf oyster industry is probably going to be a hybrid of farming and harvesting like the Louisiana model. Hopefully, the Texas Legislature will take an interest in building a modern oyster industry in Texas someday.
Where do your favorite oysters come from, and how do Gulf oysters compare?
I ate five species in the course of writing the book. The European flat oysters I ate in Ireland, England, and France have the biggest, boldest flavor. The gigas oyster, introduced in Japan, is the most commonly farmed species in France and the Pacific Coast. Gigas taste good, and they are fast-growing and hearty. But I think the best-tasting oyster in America is the virginica oyster, the native oyster of the Atlantic and Gulf coasts. Savvy oyster eaters know that oysters are seasonal—there is no single place that grows the best ones. In February and March, it’s hard to beat Gulf oysters.
Have you always been an aficionado?
I come from a long line of oyster lovers. My grandfather used to stop at the Original Oyster House in Pittsburgh after work to pick up an oyster loaf to bring home. I moved to Austin to attend the University of Texas in 1970. The Gulf oysters were very cheap. That’s when I really started eating a lot of them. The first time I tried shucking, I’m lucky I didn’t bleed to death.
How difficult is it to learn how to shuck?
It’s a struggle at first. The oyster does not give up easily. Your inclination is to try to overpower it by gouging the knife in harder. Eventually the knife slips—that’s when things get ugly. The trick is to insert the oyster knife into the hinge between the upper and lower shells and twist it. You have to turn the blade like you would turn a screwdriver and keep turning it back and forth patiently if it doesn’t work right away. It doesn’t take that much strength. I was a slow learner.
The oyster is equally reviled and revered. Why?
I find oysters fascinating to look at and delightful to eat. But when I asked an Englishman why residents of Colchester don’t eat oysters anymore, he said, “Because oysters are disgusting. A raw oyster looks like a booger, and it’s alive.”
So maybe recipes like Oysters Rockefeller are as much about disguising the appearance as they are about enhancing the flavor?
I don’t know about that. Seems like people who don’t like oysters won’t eat them, even in disguise. And besides, the appearance of the oyster is part of its power. The ancients observed oyster meats held sideways and saw the gills as fleshy lips. So they applied the law of similarity: Oysters were judged an aphrodisiac because of their resemblance to female genitalia. Same theory gave us ground rhino horns as an early version of Viagra.
What other projects have you got planned down the road?
I would like to buy some crab pots and a motorboat and start crabbing on Trinity Bay.