Sometimes life is perfect.
As I write, there is a bucket of Island oysters in my sink, a quart of heavy cream in the fridge, and a handsome French chef to put it all together. I guess that I am lucky in love and in shellfish.
The oysters were collected from Tisbury Great Pond, and the French chef, well, that’s another story.
Oysters do double duty — food and filtering. As food, they have been harvested throughout history and eaten for fun, fertility andfortitude. The old advice to eat oysters in months with the letter R still rings true. This tip is timely since oysters spawn during the summer season (or R-less months) and can be quite creamy then. Leaving the m alone also assists with a good spawn and encourages future generations of shuckable shellfish.
Besides making a memorable meal, oysters are also fabulous filterers. Dinner will be divine and our ponds purified when oysters are on the job. A single oyster can filter up to 50 gallons of water per day, and along with other filter-feeding mollusks works wonders for water purification. A century ago, when oysters were abundant and healthy in the Chesapeake Bay, it was estimated that the population there could filter all of the water in that Bay every threeyears!
I am not the only one to sing their praise. NPR notable Rob Blount Jr., a comic, American writer and journalist, created this Song to Oysters,
“I like to eat an uncooked oyster
Nothing’s slicker, nothing’s moister.
Nothing’s easier on your gorge
Or when the time comes, to disgorge.
But not to let it too long rest
Within your mouth is always best.
For if your mind dwells on an oyster
Nothing’s slicker. Nothing’s moister.
I prefer my oyster fried
Then I’m sure my oyster’s died.”
Many of the oysters that we eat are female. As sequential hermaphrodites, they begin their lives as male and change into females as they age. Ogden Nash noted the oyster’s gender uncertainty in this poem:
“The oyster is a confusing suitor
It’s masculine and feminine and even neuter
But whether husband, pal, or wife
It leads a painless sort of life.”
The ones that make it to dinner are survivors. Oysters reproduceexternally. The females and males discharge egg and sperm into the water and hope for a goodmix. When a fertilized larva results, it will go through a few forms before it is recognizable as a shelledoyster. First, it is a free-flowing mobile trochophore, then a veliger which will begin to build its shell and get ready to settle down for a sessile life. But you can’t count your oysters before they hatch or after either, since most of the 60 million eggs produced in a season by a single female will get eaten by predators before they reach adulthood.
For each oyster I consume, I will consider my good fortune and the blessings of bounty. American author Eleanor Clark was also appreciative of both life and oysters: “If you don’t love life you can’t enjoy an oyster; there is a shock of freshness to it and intimation of the ages of man, some piercing intuition of the sea and all its weeds and breezes. [They] shiver you for a split second.”
Need I say more? Maybe just eat one more.
Suzan Bellincampi is director of the Felix Neck Wildlife Sanctuary in Edgartown.