This past October, SAVEUR's Dave Lieberman interviewed Robb Walsh, author of Sex, Death and Oysters: A Half-Shell Lover's World Tour (Counterpoint, $25), to get the salty scoop behind the history of that famous mollusk.
So, I have to ask the obvious question: what's the story behind the title of your book? The oyster part is obvious, but what about the "sex" and the "death" parts?
The sexual element of oysters is the most titillating thing for people, so it made sense to make that part of the project. Nero was a huge oyster connoisseur, and oysters were his orgy food of choice. But the sex part also became more interesting over the course of researching the book, because sex is like the stink of the skunk or the quills of the** ?**: it is the oyster's survival strategy. Death was really one of the main reasons why I wanted to look into Gulf oysters to begin with, because people were dying from the vibrio [vulnificus] disease found in Gulf oysters harvested in the summer. So I guess you could say I was hoping for the sex but looking into the death.
You make light of the deceptive labeling that goes on in the oyster market all over the world. Texas oysters are sold as bluepoints, Irish oysters are sold as French, and so on. Is there any truth in labeling these days?
You can trust what species it is, but a lot of the other labeling is questionable. There are all kinds of "varieties" of oyster being created to differentiate one from another. It's basically a justification for charging more. It would be like if you went to New Jersey to buy Jersey corn, and each farm stand was calling its corn by a different name. Now, there's no question that the water environment (salinity, temperature, nutrients) affects the flavor of the oysters. That said, if you put out a plate of the same species of oyster, no one could tell exactly where they come from on taste alone. There are five main species of oyster that you'll find in America. The virginica is the native oyster from Canada, all the way down to the Gulf Coast, so it's the number one American oyster and my favorite. The others are the pacific oyster, the kumamoto, the olympia, and the European flat oyster.
How did Hurricane Ike affect the Gulf oyster business?
I actually had to rewrite the ending of the book because of Ike. The AP erroneously reported that the Gulf oyster industry had been wiped out by the hurricane. This was in large part due to the oystermen's overstating the situation in hopes of maximizing the amount of federal money they could get. [The Texas Parks & Wildlife Department] put the mortality figure at more like 40 percent, so we're probably looking at a 50 percent harvest. Oyster reefs have a coping mechanism for these kinds of disasters: sex! If there are sudden changes in environment, they go into a massive orgy. On top of that, oysters can actually change sex depending on what the population requires, so oysters are actually extremely resilient. It'll be about two years before the population is back to where it was before the hurricane. But one silver lining to it is that at least now most people know that Texas has a coastline. And hurricanes are kind of like forest fires: they are devastating, but they are also an opportunity for fresh, healthy growth.
In the book, you say, "Eating raw oysters is at once perverse and spiritual."
An oyster should be alive when you eat it [raw on the half shell], and if you think about it, there is something perverse about that. It takes some introspection, is what I'm getting at.
Do you feel more attached to oysters than ever after writing this book?
Oh, God, yeah. I feel a moral obligation not to let their lives go to waste.
Parts of your book seem as if they were written in defense of the Gulf oyster industry.
I don't think the Gulf oyster industry needs any defense. All the Gulf oysters are getting eaten. And I'm harder on oystermen who sell oysters in the summer [when the risk of vibrio-contaminated oysters is the highest] than just about anyone else. They're screwing it up for everyone else. The Gulf oyster industry has suffered because of the greed of a few Gulf oystermen. But the insurance industry may actually wind up solving the problem because it is going to stop writing liability policies to restaurants serving Gulf oysters in the summer.
Months that end in r are really the best for oysters, right?
If you're in the Northeast, the dictum makes sense. But in other parts of the country, the rule isn't enough. In Texas, the water is still too warm in September, while the Malpeque Bay, off Prince Edward Island, is getting ideal temperatures [at that time]. A good approach is to eat your way from north to south.
What are your favorite condiments for oyster?
I actually avoided condiments for the most part so that I could compare the flavors of the oysters I tasted. When oysters are bland, I can understand condiments, but frankly, I'd rather just eat tasty oysters on their own. If I had to choose, though, lemon is number one, Tabasco number two. Oysters, saltines, coffee, and Tabasco sauce early in the morning are really good.
I like how you included recipes for all kinds of oyster dishes in the book. What are a couple of your favorites?
I really love that modified Tom Valenti oyster pan roast. It's kind of a cross between a pan roast and a chowder. The hangtown fry—oysters with bacon and scrambled eggs—is the quintessential West Coast oyster dish. When it comes to the Texas Gulf coast, the fried oyster nachos sum it up.
You do a lot of drinking in the book. I'm surprised the title of the book doesn't include the word alcohol!
[Laughs] I missed that one, didn't I?
What was your favorite drink-and-oyster pairing?
With the edulis oysters I was eating in London, the gin martini with a lemon peel and olive was just stunning.
How did you really feel after you ate 15 dozen oysters in one sitting?
I felt waterlogged. It was like I'd drunk way too much water. I went home and took a nap.
So, all those oysters didn't perform, from an aphrodisiac perspective.
Unfortunately, my wife and I had our teenage daughters with us on that trip.
I'm going to New Orleans next weekend. What is the must-try oyster place or must-try oyster dish in that city?
Well, unfortunately, it's not really the season to be eating raw oysters. New Orleans has the best cooked oyster dishes in the world, though. I'd certainly try oysters bainville at Arnaud's. They make six different kinds of baked oysters, and they're all pretty damn good. Galatoire's is always worth the trip. If you have a group, take 'em out to Mosca's. Mosca's is terrific: everything's served family style, so it's hard to go with just one or two of you. Oysters Mosca is fabulous.
Your wife, Kelly, doesn't seem to like oysters, and yet she accompanies you on many of your oyster travels. She must really love you!
She likes Gulf oysters. It's the European oyster that puts her off. It was just too bold a flavor for her. I've seen her knock back a dozen Gulf oysters by herself.
You mention that, in 1864, London laborers were buying four oysters for a penny. Even accounting for inflation, that price seems pretty low. Were oysters once the lobster of the East Coast?
They certainly were. With the advent of the railroad, oyster fishermen could suddenly sell as many oysters as they could haul. That led to a glut of oysters, driving the price down. For a period of 10 or 20 years in the late 1800s, oysters were really cheap.
In the book, you relate an interesting conversation you had about how the advent of smoked salmon has possibly killed the oyster business. Could that be the subject of your next book?
Yeah, that would probably be a pretty interesting book. Smoked salmon was once an artisan product, and it's become this mass-produced, ever cheaper product, so it would also be a sad story. The theory makes sense, though.
Cancale, France, gets your nomination for "world's best destination for oyster tourists". But Moran's Oyster Cottage, in Ireland, sounded pretty amazing, too!
You're right: sitting in that oyster cottage by the peat fire with a pint is one hell of an experience.
You call the Pacific Northwest the most exciting oyster region in the world right now. Can you tell us why?
Yeah, because they have so many species of oysters available and their oyster farming is clearly cutting edge.
You say you finally had your "perfect oyster" at Rodney's Oyster House, in Toronto. It was an oyster from Prince Edward Island. Does it still hold the title?
That was still the best one I've ever had, but I'm eagerly looking to knock it from its place.