The incredible, edible oyster

StoryImage( ‘/Images/Story//Auto-img-115644328130275.jpg’, ‘Photo courtesy of The Oyster, The Life and Lore of the Celebrated Bivalve Tidewater Publishers’, ‘A contestant warms up for the raw oyster eating contest.’);

“The man had sure a palate cover’d o’er

With brass or steel, that on that rocky shore

First broke the oyster’s pearly coat

And risked the living morsel down his throat.”

—John Gay

Whoever that man was, he should be saluted and awarded a medal for courage. I suspect this brave individual lived in the dim past, and, once he had tasted the oyster’s delectable flavor, he was addicted to the shellfish for the rest of his life. The Romans certainly enjoyed them, as evidenced in the writings of Cicero, Horace, Juvenal and others. When Rome conquered Britain, one soldier wrote, “There is something good about these primitive people. They produce a good oyster.”

And so the desire for the celebrated bivalve has transcended the ages and is still a favorite of the epicures of today. Though there are many ways to prepare oysters for the table, raw, on the half shell, is the favorite serving of true oyster lovers. An oyster on the half shell is a living animal and is, as far as I know, the only animal that civilized people eat alive.

In areas where oysters are harvested, many restaurants have so-called raw bars. The patron stands before a counter, behind which oysters are skillfully, quickly shucked and placed by the dozen on a plate and offered to the customer. When a dozen are consumed, one of the empty shells is placed on the counter to establish a count before the next dozen is ordered. I confess that on one occasion in New Orleans, I had placed four empty shells on the counter before I settled my bill.

The all-time oyster gastronome, however, is a man by the name of Tommy “Muskrat” Greene of the waterfront community of Deale, Md. In July of 1985, Muskrat’s stomach earned him a place in the Guinness Book of Records when he polished off 288 raw oysters—weighing a total of approximately 6 pounds—in one minute and 33 seconds. Friends who were familiar with the capacity of Greene’s belly were not surprised by this feat, because, after all, a few years earlier he established another record by gulping down 350 snails in garlic butter in a Washington, D.C., French restaurant. As far as I know, Muskrat is still the holder of both the oyster and the snail records.

In addition to their delightful, unique taste, the oyster is the most nutritious seafood eaten by humans. Few foods are better balanced nutritiously than the oyster. For the first time observer of a raw oyster, one is likely to dismiss it as having little food value. But, the truth of the matter is, this seemingly amorphous mass of protoplasm consists of the amounts of the common components of food: proteins, carbohydrates, and lipids recommended by nutritionists. In addition, all of the essential amino acids required by the body to build proteins are present in the oyster.

Some vitamins are produced in the body, but the majority of them must be obtained in our food. It is well known that oysters are a good source of the following vitamins considered essential to good health in humans: A, B (thiamine), B2.(riboflavin), B (niacin), C (ascorbic acid) and D (calciferol).

There is a common belief that oysters should not be consumed in any month that does not have an “R” in it. This is nonsense. This belief grew out of the fact that, in days of yore, refrigerated containers were not available for shipping the bivalves to market, and they were susceptible to bacterial growth in warm weather that sometimes made consumers ill. In addition, oysters are not very tasty during the warm, R-less months of the year,as that is their spawning, period. After spawning they have used up most of their body producing the millions of eggs and sperm for reproduction. During this period, they have little to be proud of, being watery, thin and translucent.

There is, of course, the idea that raw oysters act as an effective aphrodisiac. The legendary Don Juan and Casanova were reported to have consumed great quantities of raw oyster before their extensive boudoir escapades. However, though oysters contain significant quantities of zinc and selenium considered necessary for male sexual health, the consensus of opinion concerning the aphrodisiacal effect of oysters is that it is more psychological than physical.

So, whenever we here in the Midwest get a chance to roister with the oyster, we should take it, both for the benefit of our taste buds, and for our general health.

Dr. Robert Hedeen is a former resident of Maryland’s eastern shore and resided in the Chicago area from 1960 to 1971. He is a retired professor emeritus of biological sciences in the University of Maryland system. He has published more than 30 scientific papers, has written numerous magazine articles, and is the author of two books on the natural history of the Chesapeake Bay.

From the Aug. 23-29, 2006, issue

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