The Sex, Charm and Marrow of Great Bay Oysters
“He was a bold man that first ate an oyster.”—John Swift, Irish essayist, novelist, satirist
It’s said that Pearl Street of New York City got its name from the oyster shells that used to pave its path, glistening in the sun like pearls. During this time, in the late 1800s, oysters were practically overflowing from the New York Harbor, finding their way into every restaurant for an affordable working-class price, taken for granted as one of nature’s gracious and endless supply. Their sharp-shelled beds and “marrowy” innards, as the Greek poet Matron described them, don’t suggest that the bulbous body in viscous liquid are edible, never mind packed with lists of vitamins and a sustaining balance of protein, carbohydrates and lipids. But the humble subject has never been too concerned with aesthetics.
Though New York was famous for its abundance of oysters in the nineteenth century, the Great Bay Estuary may have housed 1,000 acres of live oyster reef as recently as 1970. Due to decades of overharvesting, disease and pollution, however, ninety percent of the population remains destroyed. This decline has not only affected restaurant prices and menus but, most devastatingly, the Great Bay’s ecosystem.
The Chesapeake Bay Foundation reports that an adult oyster is able to filter up to 50 gallons of water per day, dining on a meal of algae while removing dirt and pollution simultaneously. This oceanic cleansing maintains a healthy habitat for surrounding sea life and keeps nitrogen levels low. For The Nature Conservancy and The University of New Hampshire, oyster restoration* is essential to rehabilitate the natural balance of the Great Bay Estuary. Since 2009, the restoration program has worked to restore as many as eighteen acres of reef and added over 3.5 million oysters to the Great Bay’s system, creating promise for the survival of this vital species and a necessary increase in the Estuary’s filtration capacity.
In Portsmouth, the Franklin Oyster House is tastefully defining what it means to eat these local treasures, with a rotating menu of oysters, cheeses and other rich dishes sourced from neighboring farmers, fishermen, foragers and cheese-makers. Chef-owner Matt Louis doesn’t like to use the term “local,” however, fearing that the expression has become too ambiguous. When it comes to the food he serves in his restaurants, his goal is very clear: “We are highlighting the foodstuffs of our region, and it has always been part of our purpose to dig deep and explore what is right in our own backyard. I like to refer to it as ‘intelligent sourcing.’” In April the Oyster House introduced their newest addition—the Franklin Oyster—farmed exclusively for the Portsmouth restaurant by Tim Henry of Bay Point Oyster.
Along with their heroic personalities and edible intrigue, oysters have been known to make charm out of their ailments. When an irritant gets trapped in the oyster’s body, it quickly secretes the bacteria in multiple layers of calcium and protein, resulting in a smooth, round defense mechanism more formerly known as the pearl. The oyster also appears in Greek mythology when Aphrodite, the goddess of love, “sprang from an oyster shell” and gave birth to Eros and the term “aphrodisiac.”
I find something adventurous about oyster tasting myself. Perhaps it is the presentation—the beautiful, wide-open shells resting on glinting ice; the accompaniment of an immaculate lemon wedge. More likely, though, it’s the raw flavor of sea that each shell harbors, the tiny bits of sand that may still linger, leaving a salty assurance that the fruits of the region endure.
*For more information about the Great Bay Oyster Restoration Program, visit http://www.nature.org/NHoysters