Let's all try to be cheerful about January, shall we?
I know it's tough. We Americans get started on Christmas so early, and celebrate so strenuously, that we're generally too tuckered out to observe more than half of the traditional Twelve Days of Christmas. With the January part of the holiday -- once climaxed by the fabulous feast of Twelfth Night -- in decline, the month itself has become almost definitively dullsville, noted for such unalluring activities as paying bills, buying new sheets, trying to Nautilize off all that eggnog, and losing the men in our lives to televised football. It's tempting to hibernate, rather than try to muddle through the month with cold toes and the sniffles.
But don't despair. There is one wonderful treat still in store, one luxury that may make you feel (at least momentarily) that January is the best of all possible months.
Oysters can help even winterphobes enjoy the season. While the stricture against eating oysters in any month without an "R" has been loosened some since the advent of modern refrigeration, there are good reasons for saving these charismatic bivalves for the cool-weather months -- and especially for January.
Oysters spawn in the summer; just before spawning they are often slimy, and just after, skinny and watery and lacking in oyster oomph. By the end of September oysters are tasting great, but by that time there are hordes of oyster lovers howling for them, and high demand makes for high prices. During the holidays, when oysters are traditional for Christmas Eve and New Year's Eve suppers, the demand peaks. And in February, when midwinter freeze cuts supply and people are eating more meatless Lenten meals, interest in oysters rises again.
Which leaves a window of opportunity in January, the perfect time for an oyster pigout.
Our love affair with oysters goes back to antiquity, according to a new book, "Oysters: A Connoisseur's Guide and Cookbook," published last month by Ten Speed Press. Karen Warner's text, which accompanies the recipes of Lonnie Williams, chef at the Pacific Heights Bar and Grill in San Francisco, covers just about all there is to know about the glorious mollusks and their biology, culture, varieties, history, and even mythology. (Did you know that pearls don't really come from oysters? The jewelry-quality variety actually grow in a mussel-like mollusk called meleagrina margaritifera.)
From the days of Roman banquets until relatively recently, mass consumption was the rule. Notable oyster-eaters include the Roman emperor Vitellius, who reputedly once ate a thousand oysters in one sitting, and Balzac, who consumed up to a hundred as pre-dinner appetizers. Not only the rich and famous ate hearty, though; oysters were once so plentiful that they were considered poor-folks' food, and Baltimore old-timers remember the days when raw oysters were given away in local bars.
As the 20th century progressed, however, pollution, overharvesting and diseases took their toll. In the late '50s, a parasite with a science-fiction name, MSX (multinucleate sphere unknown), began to attack Chesapeake oysters. Although MSX has waned a bit in the past couple of years, another disease, dermo, has taken up the slack in reducing the oyster crop, according to Chris Judy, a biologist with the Maryland Department of Natural Resources oyster program. Although MSX and dermo are not harmful to humans, they are invariably fatal to oysters, and scientists have not figured out a way to eradicate the diseases from as large an area as the Chesapeake Bay.
But, Mr. Judy says, there's guarded good news for oyster lovers. The department is now seeing oyster production in areas, such as Tangier Sound and the mouth of the Patuxent River, that were almost wiped out by disease several years ago. In addition, while output figures are available yet, early data indicates that 10 percent more oysters are being harvested now than at this time last year. Reproduction rates are up, too, boding well for future crops.
And, Mr. Judy points out, "They still taste good."
Other positive developments on the oyster front include the strides made in aquaculture. Farm-raised oysters are bred for such traits as fast growth, taste and meatiness, and raised in scientifically controlled environments, where they are kept clean and fed a special algae diet. The area's major "ostraculture" venture, St. George's Oyster Co. in Piney Point, has been in business for a little over two years, supplying not only full-sized oysters to restaurants and seafood markets, but seed to individual growers. Eventually, according to vice president and general manager David Brower, the company hopes to franchise its operations, providing business opportunities to areas hard-hit the waning of the bay's bounty.
"We have about 2 million oysters in final grow-out right now, that's the last growth process prior to harvesting," Mr. Brower says.