It was Unk who fed me my first oyster.

We were at Captain Benny’s, the old-school location on Kirby, and I remember regarding both the place and its inhabitants with trepidation.  We were in the big city — at a restaurant shaped like a boat, no less — and I was surrounded by strangers who were entirely too friendly. 

We sat at the bar, and Unk ordered a dozen oysters on the half-shell.

Wanna try one, sugar?, he asked, smiling.

I leaned over his arm and peered at the platter filled with ice and oysters, wet and quivering in their shells.  It wasn’t standard fare for a ten year old, but I didn’t want to seem chicken.

“How do I do it?”

Use a fork for your first one.  And don’t try to chew it, just swaller it whole.

I eventually reached over and plucked one out of its shell.  I sat there balancing the gray opaque blob in front of my face, desperately hoping it wouldn’t slip off my fork and onto the floor.

When I realized that everyone at the bar was watching, I turned beet red.  Thinking about it now, I realize that they were all probably thinking back to their own first oyster. 

I took a last look over at Unk, waiting to see if – hoping he was — just joshin’ me.  His face was gleeful – eyebrows up, jaw slightly open with expectation, that familiar glint in his eye. Unk was taking joy in this moment in a way that I didn’t understand at all.

Too late to back out now.

I slowly put the fork in my mouth, deposited the oyster, then withdrew it.

I looked at Unk.  She did it, his eyes said, beaming.  He was carefully measuring my reaction.

I flitted my eyes around the bar.  All still staring.

I swallowed dutifully, and the slimy plumpness slid down my throat.  I immediately reached for my Coke.

Well?, Unk said, whatcha think?

“Tastes like river water,” I replied.

That’s what oysters are all about, baby girl. You done good!

He laughed and squeezed my shoulder.  He was “tickled to death,” as he’s fond of saying, even to this day.

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My second oyster experience wouldn’t happen for more than ten years, on my twenty-first birthday.  I was with a group of girlfriends at a restaurant in the French Quarter; ordering oysters seemed like something a well-heeled twenty-one-year-old might do.

Better prepared this time, I plopped a fat oyster onto a saltine cracker, squeezed some lemon juice over it, added a healthy dose of horseradish and a few shakes of Tabasco, and chewed.

Whoa, I thought.  Is it me, or was that really freaking good?

I assembled another, this time with less of each accoutrement.  And another.  And another, until I was slurping them out of their shells untouched.

I suddenly knew what the fuss was all about.

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Appellation Reef Map, courtesy of Jim Gossen of Louisiana Seafoods. (Click to enlarge.)

Most of the food world inaccurately assumes that Gulf oysters are subpar, a far cry from the highly regaled offerings on the East and West coasts.  Part of the problem is that those fancy Yankee oysters are referred to by varied and distinct place-names, or appellations, which lend a certain personality and panache to their offerings.  Oysters from Texas to Florida, on the other hand, are all lumped together as generic “Gulf oysters.”

But appellation names aren’t just a slick marketing tool.  Oysters are a delicacy, in every sense of the word, with flavors that directly reflect their habitat.  Naming them helps identify those subtle differences. 

Oysters from reefs near the mouth of a river, for example, taste “fresher” than their briny cousins that grow tucked back in a cove, where the water is saltier, protected from runoff.

In cold water, oysters plump up and store glycogen, which is sweet to the palate; warmer water stimulates oysters into reproductive mode, which uses up that stored glycogen and gives them a fishier taste.

Water temperature also dictates how long it takes an oyster to reach maturity.  An oyster that takes longer to grow has more opportunity take on the mineral or vegetal flavors of the water it inhabits; quicker growing oysters are milder in flavor.

Here’s the cool part: relatively small changes to an oyster habitat can perceptibly alter their appearance and flavor.  Eating oysters harvested after a heavy rainfall can be an altogether different experience than eating oysters from the exact same reef a week before. 

People get excited about local foods because they reflect the sense of a particular place.  Oysters are hyper-local: they reflect a specific place and time.  Appellation names help capture that magic.

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Naming our oysters is actually a pretty old idea.  In the 1800s, oysters from Galveston Bay were known by the names of the reefs they were harvested from.  So what happened?  Commercialism.  Railroads enabled the export of oysters to other parts of the country as a commodity product, where they are passed off or substituted for local oysters.  In the process, the reef names were forgotten or lost.

Fellow Texans, it’s time to take back our oysters.

The members of Foodways Texas are leading the charge by sponsoring events to raise awareness about the food heritage we have lost.  Most recently, Levi Goode (of Goode Company Restaurants) and Robb Walsh teamed up to host Oysters, Brews, and Blues, a celebration which included a tasting bar featuring six distinct appellations from Galveston Bay.  It was reminiscent of the landmark oyster tasting Foodways Texas hosted a year ago, at their first annual symposium.

The message seems to be resonating, at least within the Houston food community.  Several area restaurants like Goode Company Seafood are offering reef-specific oysters on their menus, and customers are proving that they’re willing to pay for top-notch oysters.

The majority of oyster lovers in Texas will probably stick with the cheaper commodity oysters that they’ve grown up with, and that’s perfectly fine.  But creating a market for larger, hand-selected premium oysters will let us keep the finest of what’s available in our local waters to ourselves.  Hopefully we’ll regain an important aspect of our food culture in the process.

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To learn more about Foodways Texas, please visit their website and consider becoming a member.

Robb Walsh’s latest book, Texas Eats, includes an informative chapter on oysters.  For further reading, I highly recommend his earlier work, Sex, Death, and Oysters.

And keep an eye out for future Goode Company events – Levi and his crew are celebrating 35 years in business by touring the state and celebrating everything they love about Texas.  For more information, visit their Facebook page.