Rowan Jacobsen (www.rowanjacobsen.com) knows oysters. Ten years ago, he published A Geography of Oysters, and his new book, The Essential Oyster, provides a close look at more than 100 of North America's most celebrated oysters, including their history, regional significance and the people and culture that surround them. Jacobsen signs his book at Octavia Books Nov. 16 and at Peche Seafood Grill (with an oyster tasting) Nov. 17. Jacobsen spoke with Gambit about oysters.
How do the oysters from around the country differ?
Jacobsen: The oysters in the Northeast and the Gulf are all the same oyster, the (crassostrea) virginica, but for whatever reason that oyster grows a lot differently on the Gulf Coast than it does in the Northeast. In the Northeast, it tends to have a thinner shell, and Gulf oysters have this big, thick shell that you'd never see in the Northeast. It has to do with the climate and the lower salinity of the Gulf, and possibly they've become genetically different over time. In terms of style, the Northeast is a little fussy and fancy, and if you order oysters on the half shell they're these super clean, beautiful oysters with perfect cups because they've been carefully cultivated — and they're (often) served with mignonette. What I love about New Orleans and the Gulf Coast is that it's a lot less fussy. You walk up to the oyster bar and there's this guy there who has been shucking for 20 years, and you're just shooting the shit with him and he's shucking big oysters and plopping them right on the raw bar. There's not a plate in sight, and you're drinking a beer and totally immersed in the experience. You really can't get that anywhere but New Orleans and a couple of spots in the Gulf.
The Pacific Northwest is a completely different oyster. They grow the Pacific oyster, which is native to Japan, and it has a completely different flavor. The Gulf oyster has a fairly mild flavor, the East Coast tends to be really briny and really salty — that just-getting-hit-by-a-wave-on-the-beach kind of feeling, and the Pacific Northwest has much more of an intertidal estuary kind of a flavor. They're sweeter, there's a lot of cucumber and grassy notes. They've got more flavor in general, but less ocean brine.
(Price) also plays a huge part in the difference in the experience. It's not just the amount of money; it's the way that difference makes you approach the experience. If you're in New York or Seattle where it's often $3 or $4 for an oyster, you treat it like it's this precious thing that you're going to celebrate and really worship. But when oysters are 50 cents at a happy hour, you don't even have to think about it. You're just one with the oyster and you kind of lose yourself in it.
How has the Gulf oyster industry changed since the BP oil disaster?
J: It really was a game changer from what I've seen, but not for the reasons that you might think. The oyster beds never got hit by oil, but a lot of them got killed by the fresh water. (They) released all this fresh water out into the Gulf to try and physically force the oil away, and unfortunately what that did is it turned all the oyster beds fresh. Of course, (oysters) can't live in fresh water. So that knocked the industry on its butt for a while, but it was also the spur that got the first few farmers started on the Gulf Coast. That's something I pay a bunch of attention to in the book, this first wave of farms — in Alabama, Louisiana and the Florida Gulf Coast — that are growing these beautiful oysters but still aren't getting their due nationally. People still have this block, where they think Gulf oysters are going to be these big, muddy things. But these have gorgeous deep-cut shells and it just blows people away when they see them. People in the Northeast and the Northwest have had an attitude about Gulf oysters. They had been cultivating oysters for a while with these off-bottom techniques that produce perfect shells, and so everyone had in their head that there was just something endemic in the Gulf that couldn't make oysters like that. It's hard to say where the industry is going ... but I certainly hope that Louisiana never loses its wild oyster culture.
Do you have a favorite place to get oysters in New Orleans?
J: I've got a couple of places I really like. I like Peche. They'll do beautiful oysters, and they have some other (types) from around the Gulf, so it's kind of fun to tour the Gulf through Peche's oysters. Also, I like Pascal's Manale a lot, because it's got the standing, no-stools oyster bar that's separate from everything else, and I think the shucker there is a really cool guy.