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A Brief History of Oysters as Food

Liz Clift

It’s nearly Thanksgiving, and for some of us (especially if we have some New England traditions in our background) that may mean oyster stuffing. This tradition is likely a carryover from England, where as early as 1685, oysters were being used in stuffing for a variety of meat dishes.

If you’re like me, you’re thinking ew, gross. If you’re like our Senior Managing Ecologist, Randy Mandel, it’s one of your favorite parts of Thanksgiving.

Oysters can be pretty expensive though—East Coast oysters are typically about $2/each and while jarred oysters are generally a little cheaper, they’re still pricy. So how did the tradition of oyster stuffing carry over from England (if that is, in fact, where it came from)?

In the US, oyster production reached its peak between 1880 and 1910. During this period, the US produced up to 160 million pounds annually (today we produce about a quarter of that amount)—more than all other countries combined—and some biologists think New York harbor, which hosts the eastern oyster (Crassostrea virginica) may have once contained more than half of the world’s oyster population. During the height of oyster production, they cost less than beef, poultry, or fish, and so were consumed by the masses—and even sold by street vendors. So many oysters were consumed that New Yorkers even paved Pearl Street with oyster shells and used them in the foundations of buildings. With this knowledge, it’s easy to hypothesize that folks mixed the plentiful and inexpensive oysters with some bread and spices, and voila, a continued tradition of oyster stuffing.

Today, that level of consumption seems unfathomable. Even during this peak production period, oyster populations were under siege from overharvesting. As early as 1658, back when New York was still New Amsterdam (and boasted a population between 6,000-9,000), there were rules in place that regulated when and from where oysters could be harvested because of worries about depleting this food source. Now, the oyster is functionally extinct in New York Harbor (it’s estimated, oysters once covered 22,000 acres of the Hudson River estuary).

The Billion Oyster Project hopes to change that—and to plant one billion oysters in New York Harbor by 2035. This isn’t just a project of planting oysters though—it is also an educational system designed to teach thousands of citizens, including students, about the Hudson River estuary. These oysters stand to provide major water quality services to the estuary system (but that’s another—and forthcoming!—blog).

You won’t be able to eat these oysters though—they will be filled with far too many pollutants, including heavy metals. This susceptibility of oysters to environmental pollutants is one of the things prompting oyster farmers to, well, farm oysters. But farmed oysters are also susceptible to some of the same pathogens as their wild-raised kin. Bacteria called Vibrio can cause severe illness (or even death) in people who eat shellfish or swim in ocean waters where the bacteria is present. Vibrio is, in fact, one of the reasons for that old saying “only eat oysters in months with an ‘r,’ which is to say, the colder months of the year because warmer waters can cause it to spread more easily.

Today, a fair amount of research and oyster-farmer education is being done on how to minimize the risk of Vibrio bacteria—but as oceans warm, and the bacteria moves further north, the risk becomes more prevalent in markets where it hasn’t been (as much of) an issue before (Shaw, et al. 2014).

The aquaculture industry has a vested interest (and those individuals who don’t, should) in researching Vibrio as well as two warmer water diseases that can decimate an oyster crop (MSX and Dermo, neither of which has an impact on human health). The research, and its findings, can be especially important for small oyster farms.

Small farms can be more vulnerable to the economic impact of losing many oysters or to developing a reputation for making people sick. This may be especially true for these small farms that are marketing themselves more like “boutiques,” which make efforts to stand out based on the flavor of the oyster.

So, what creates oyster flavor? The merroir (like a wine’s terroir)—climate, geology, water quality, and water temperature—the oyster grows up in.  These factors vary depending on where it was raised and the time of year it was harvested. One shellfish company (and this is no endorsement of the company or the accuracy of the wheel—I don’t eat shellfish, just find them fascinating!) has even put together an extensive flavor wheel for oysters (as well as an aperitif pairing guide). There are, very literally, entire books you can read about the taste of oysters.

So, regardless if you like oysters in your stuffing, or on the half shell—or if you prefer them alive and filtering our water—it’s important to consider how the oyster’s environment impacts its health, likelihood of survival, and if you’re an oyster-eater, how much you’ll have to pay for an oyster and how it’ll taste.

Keep an eye out for a follow-up blog, coming soon, on the ecology of oysters.

 

Shaw, K.S., J.M. Jacobs, B.C. Crump. 2014. “Impact of Hurricane Irene on Vibrio vulnificus and Vibrio parahaemolyticus concentration in surface water, sediment, and cultured oysters in the Chesapeake Bay, MD, USA. Frontiers in Research Topics. 5.204.

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