Consider the Oyster

There is no greater delicacy than a plate of live, briny bivalves—and no richer source of them than the Gulf Coast. Yet in Galveston Bay, where acres of reefs were obliterated by Hurricane Ike, empty waters are causing oystermen to hang up their nets. Is this the end of our precious mollusk?
Left, a pile of empty shells, or cultch, used to build oyster reefs in Galveston Bay; right, oysterman Mihael Ivic with one of the trucks he uses to transport his now meager harvest.
Photographs by Kenny Braun

THERE IS SOMETHING atavistic about the oyster, something that hides in the dark corners of our brains among lost baseball gloves and bottle-cap collections and unfinished love letters. I can’t remember a time when I didn’t crave one. When I was three or four, my daddy would hoist me onto his lap, where I would gobble oysters almost as fast as he could open them with his pocketknife. Daddy would bring back a sack or two every time he went fishing in Port Aransas, packed in ice inside his giant red cooler. Oyster Nights on the back lawn of our home in Arlington were festive occasions prized by nearly everyone in the neighborhood—adults, kids, and assorted dogs and cats, a chorus of squeals and laughter as friends gathered close around two washtubs, one filled with iced-down oysters that my dad and his friends had already popped open and the other with beer and soft drinks. There was always a big dish of red sauce, though many preferred just a squeeze of lemon and a dash of salt. Daddy added a drop or two of Tabasco, claiming the slow burn of peppers sharpened the grainy tang of cold beer. He swore to me that if I listened real hard just as I squeezed the lemon, I could hear the oyster’s dying scream.

Eating oysters is a ritual. It requires elbow room, enough old newspapers to wrap up the empty shells, and a measure of appreciation that the small animal huddled in its pearly shell is alive and about to die for your pleasure. Devouring an animal that is still living challenges the appetite and tests almost to the breaking point one’s sense of decorum. Is there a gracious way to eat oysters? Is it possible to eat too many? What’s the proper accompanying beverage, beer or crisp white wine?

During my newspaper days in Dallas in the sixties, the staff of the Dallas Times Herald collected regularly at Louis’ Oyster Bar just down the street and wagered substantial amounts of money on who could eat the most oysters in an afternoon. I can’t recall his name, but a pudgy photographer who worked for United Press International could put away eight or ten dozen without pausing for breath. Though I never took part in the competition, I’d go through three or four dozen while keeping score. The oyster orgy at Louis’s was usually followed by an evening of cocktails at the University Club, a spot that did not recognize curfew. I never saw anyone get sick from eating oysters, which is not to say that afternoons at Louis’s and evenings at the University Club didn’t eventually result in worse-than-death hangovers.

Oysters get a bad rap, mostly, I think, from those who don’t like them. Every so often you hear of an unfortunate run-in: I saw one report as recently as December about public health officials closing San Antonio Bay because several people had fallen ill after eating its oysters. But as I learned a few years ago from my friend Sammy Ray, an oyster pathologist and professor emeritus at Texas A&M University at Galveston, most people who become deathly ill are often already suffering from liver disease or a compromised immune system. Sammy has studied oysters for sixty-something years and is one of the world’s leading experts on oyster diseases; when I called to ask him about the outbreak, he reminded me that the warm-weather bacteria most often blamed for illness, Vibrio vulnificus, is usually nothing a healthy liver can’t process. As for San Antonio Bay, he had been examining oysters in the area and believed that they had been exposed to a different bacteria after harvesting, probably as they were being shipped to market. The incident, he said, need not hinder my affair with the half shell.

But I was distressed when, soon afterward, I read a far more worrisome report. Oystermen in Galveston Bay, it claimed, were barely hanging on, or in some cases quitting the business, because of damage done to oyster reefs by Hurricane Ike, in September 2008. This is potentially devastating news for oyster lovers: Almost 70 percent of the oysters harvested annually in Texas come from Galveston Bay. Indeed, the Gulf supplies most of the so-called Eastern oysters—or Crassostrea virginicas, famous for their proliferation and superior flavor—consumed in the nation. The fabled oyster beds of Long Island, New York Harbor, and Chesapeake Bay were polluted or fished out long ago. By contrast, Galveston Bay, along with a few smaller Texas bays, produced a record 6.8 million pounds as recently as 2003, nearly double what it did in 1900. Is the devastation wrought by Ike the beginning of the end for our oysters? Could Texas also be on a track to oyster oblivion?

I decided to consult with Sammy. At 91, he is a gnome of a man, feisty as a bumblebee and ever ready to turn the simplest question into a lengthy lecture he calls Oyster Biology 101.

Tell me the truth, Sammy,” I said. “How bad is it?”

It’s bad,” he said flatly. “Come down and I’ll give you a tour.”

GALVESTON BAY and the other estuaries of the Gulf are about the last places in the country where wild oysters are harvested. The fishing fleet is mobile and moves from bay to bay as conditions dictate, but at any given time there are about 450 licensed oystermen in Galveston waters, many of whom have been there all their lives. Though a vast majority of them work the 22,760 acres of reefs open to the public, the oyster trade in Texas is controlled by a handful of private-lease holders, among them Mihael Ivic, brothers Ben and Joe Nelson, and Johnny and Lisa Halili. These producers own flotillas of oyster boats—Ivic and the Halilis on the west side of the bay, in San Leon, the Nelsons on the east side, in Smith Point—and operate processing plants, which buy oysters from numerous smaller operators.

Sammy took me first to meet Mihael Ivic. A

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