Oyster-eating time: Sometimes change is hard to swallow

March 01, 2006|By ROB KASPER

Since March includes the letter "R," it is, I believe, a good month to eat oysters.

The "R-month" axiom was passed along to me by fans of Chesapeake Bay oysters when I arrived here almost 30 years ago. It has served me well.

During these "R" months -- September through April -- the weather is chilly, the oysters are fat and I am in the mood to enjoy the mollusks.

But recently, in The Big Oyster (Ballantine Books, 2006), a look at New York City history through its once-thriving oyster trade, author Mark Kurlansky called this "R" month outlook an "ancient and somewhat mythological belief."

The "R-month" tenet had roots in Europe, where it is said some oysters taste like sand in the summertime. But it picked up followers in 19th-century America, when cholera and other diseases swept through the populace, Kurlan- sky said.

Looking for culprits and disdainful of oyster cellars -- low-light basements where the pleasures of the flesh (oyster and human) were sold -- New York City authorities outlawed the sale of oysters from May 1 to Sept. 1.

Since those times, the prevention and cure of diseases has greatly improved. Municipal health departments, sewer systems and regular garbage collections have had more of an impact on improving public health than restricting oyster sales. So nowadays, according to Kurlansky, the American oyster lover does not have to restrict his ardor to the colder months. Summer oysters, he wrote, "are perfectly healthy unless spoiled in the market by summer heat."

This ran counter to my convictions. So I called the author and peppered him with questions. Kurlansky assured me that he practices what he preaches, eating summer oysters, Wellfleets, while visiting Massachusetts in August. The native East Coast oyster is found from Maine to Florida. But it tastes different in different locales because, like wine grapes, oysters carry the flavor of the region where they are planted, he said.

In his book, Kurlansky writes that Diamond Jim Brady, the flamboyant turn-of-the-century railroad car salesman, preferred the large oysters from the Chesapeake, often beginning his evening meal with six dozen Lynnhavens shipped to New York from Virginia's Eastern Shore. Kurlansky said he prefers the smaller oysters that grow in the colder waters of the Northeast.

I also spoke to Don Meritt, an oyster researcher at the Horn Point Laboratory of the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science in Dorchester County.

He confirmed that, from a strictly scientific viewpoint, it is possible to eat oysters during the non-"R" months and live to tell the tale.

"If they are grown in good water, harvested and stored correctly," summer oysters could pass muster, he said. In Maryland, these oysters would have to be harvested from private farms because the wild oyster beds are off-limits during the summer.

Despite these learned assurances, eating "off-season" oysters still did not appeal to me. One reason for my distaste was that oysters spawn during warm weather. A spawning oyster is thinner than normal; some would say "watery."

Kurlansky, the summer-oyster eater, described a spawning oyster as "less plump," but not necessarily less flavorful. I think of them as skinny.

I was also persuaded by the argument that oysters, like many species, need a summer vacation, time off to rest and recover.

Finally, there was the question of being in the mood. Kurlansky said that for him there were few pleasures on earth that compared with sitting under an umbrella at a seaside cafe in France in the summer, sipping a glass of chilled wine and enjoying a raw oyster that "exploded with the sense of sea."

I would like that, too, but I would prefer to sip and bite during an "R" month. In the end, I concluded that habit determines a person's oyster-eating timetable. That is what a handful of Marylanders, noted trenchermen, told me when I asked them about their oyster-eating practices.

Charlie Frentz, head of the Oyster Recovery Partnership, a nonprofit organization working to restore the Chesapeake Bay's oyster population; Bill Burton, a longtime Maryland outdoor writer and former Evening Sun columnist; and Tom Horton, author of several books on the Chesapeake Bay and a former Sun columnist, said it was their custom to feast on local oysters mainly during "R" months.

"You are raised a certain way, and it just doesn't seem right to do it any other," said Burton.

So the other day I went down to Cross Street Market and bought a couple of pints of Maryland oysters at Nick's Inner Harbor Seafood. I took them home and made a couple of unusual dishes, among them soup made with coconut milk, lime juice, peppers and oysters.

The soup was refreshing -- more of an appetizer than a main dish, more Thai in flavor than Maryland. The oysters were plump and flavorful, and the soup was clean and satisfying. Because I fixed it during an "R" month, it qualified, I decided, to be called a traditional oyster dish.

rob.kasper@baltsun.com

Podcasts featuring Rob Kasper are available at baltimoresun.com/kasper.

Oyster Soup With Coconut Milk and Chiles

Serves 4

1 pint shucked oysters (about 16) including their liquor

1 cup bottled clam juice

1 1/2 cups canned, unsweetened coconut milk

1 jalapeno chile, quartered lengthwise

3 green onions, thinly sliced

zest of 1/2 lime

2 tablespoons lime juice

1/4 cup chopped fresh basil

1/4 cup chopped fresh cilantro

1 teaspoon salt or to taste

Strain oysters over saucepan and reserve the oysters. Add the clam juice to the oyster liquor along with the coconut milk, jalapeno, onions and lime zest. Simmer for 5 minutes.

Add the oysters and lime juice and simmer gently until the oysters' edges curl, about 2 minutes. Stir in the basil, cilantro and salt and serve immediately.

From "Simply Shellfish," by Leslie Glover Pendelton (William Morrow, 2006)

Per serving: 56 calories, 5 grams protein, 2 grams fat, trace saturated fat, 6 grams carbohydrate, 1 gram fiber, 31 milligrams cholesterol, 873 milligrams sodium

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