Humble oyster speaks volumes Books: The Chesapeake Bay bivalve and its cousins have achieved literary prominence through research texts, historical works, cookbooks and even novels.

On the Bay

August 30, 1996|By Tom Horton | Tom Horton,SUN STAFF

SUMMER HEAT and crabs are only just coming on; but oyster season has begun, if only literarily.

First to arrive in the mail this week was "The Eastern Oyster," a new, definitive work on our bay's famed mollusk, which actually ranges from Brazil to Canada, the book says.

Not for the casual, this 4 1/2 -pound volume from the Maryland Sea Grant Program devotes chapters to the likes of "Adductor and Mantle Musculature."

But it has excellent, readable sections on oyster disease and the history of attempts to establish Crassostrea virginica in far-flung places. (The species has flourished in Pearl Harbor.)

The book, which supplants Paul Galtsoff's 32-year-old "The American Oyster," is a fine reference for teachers or others who need in-depth knowledge of the Chesapeake Bay.

A day later the post brought Johns Hopkins Press' reprint of W. K. Brooks' "The Oyster," first published by Hopkins more than a century ago.

Brooks was the original Chesapeake scientist, a great authority on oysters and what was happening to decimate them even in the 1880s. He proposed solutions that ring fresh in the 1990s.

Brooks a fine writer

He was also a fine writer. I hesitate to say that this book will sell like hot cakes, but the printing is only 1,750, and no respectable oyster library will be complete without this classic.

I was surprised to find my own bookshelves now include more than a dozen works on, or related to, the humble bivalve.

They range from Gilbert Byron's novel, "The Lord's Oysters," and Pat Vojtech's "Chesapeake Bay Skipjacks," to M.F.K. Fisher's gastronomical "Consider the Oyster" and John Wennersten's "Oyster Wars of Chesapeake Bay."

Also, some of the best literature constructed around a mollusk, Eleanor Clark's "Oysters of Locmariaquer," was written after she and her husband, Robert Penn Warren, resided on the Brittany seacoast in the 1950s.

My favorite is the less lofty "Oyster Cans" by Jim and Vivian Karsnitz, collectors of oyster memorabilia who live in Lancaster County, Pa.

Fascinating question

More later on that book, whose fascination for me has to do with a larger oyster question: Whence our abiding interest in such a humble invertebrate?

Indeed, eight of my oyster books have been issued (or reissued) in the last decade, and four of them since 1993. Interest in oysters seems healthier than the oysters themselves.

The fact is, we go back a long and happy way with oysters, never mind Jonathan Swift's over-quoted observation that, "He was a bold man that first eat an oyster."

Judging by the ancient and vast shell middens (up to 7 million bushels in one locale) unearthed from the Orient to the Chesapeake, humans have been intrepidly slurping oysters since they figured how to crack them open.

Oysters exist on every continent but Antarctica and are creatures of the near coastal edges and tidal river mouths -- as are we, with about half our population on 5 percent of Earth's surface, mostly near the land-water margins.

Easy access helped

Perhaps easy access to tasty, abundant oysters was, early on, a draw toward the shoreline. Such access got many an early American colonist through a hard winter.

From pre-Christian Roman poets to Jack London, an erstwhile oyster pirate on San Francisco Bay, writers have extolled the taste of the oyster, shared by emperors and commoners alike.

For a thousand years or more, France's Bordeaux region was as known for the savor of its oysters as for its wines: "So high an order of taste it is like smelling violets to eat them," wrote 'N Montaigne in 1581.

In appearance the oyster is "a nondescript mass of protoplasm living between two calcareous shells," writes Robert Hedeen in his otherwise accurate 1986 book, "The Oyster."

I say otherwise: Freshly opened, its color closer to cream than gray, resplendent on the lustrous surface of the half shell, agleam with its salty liquor, an oyster is voluptuously splendid to both eye and palate.

A political force

In bay history, of course, the oyster has been a political force.

Maryland has legislated over it copiously since the 1820s, and to protect it formed an Oyster Navy (now marine police) in 1868. Virginia's coveting of oyster beds accounts for the odd zig-zags in the state line across the bay.

Culturally, oysters have given rise to communities as different -- but uniformly colorful -- as Chesapeake watermen and the seacoast ostreoculturists of Brittany.

And these in turn have produced countless fine art, from John Singer Sargent's "Oyster Gatherers at Cancale" to the skipjack art of John M. Barber and Lee Boynton.

Finally, the oyster, which stays in one place all its adult life, and filters its environment by the hundreds of gallons a day to feed, is as literal a "taste" of region and place as anything we eat (this is also the charm of wine).

Nero's delight

Bring him an oyster from any coastline of the vast Roman Empire, the emperor Nero said, and his taste buds would tell you its origin.

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