Photo by Allerina & Glen MacLarty/Flickr CC
Oysters don't, if you think about it, look like food. They look like rocks. Sharp, dangerous rocks full of yellow slime. Surprisingly enough, slime is quite tasty. To quote Jonathan Swift, "He was a bold man that first ate an oyster."
Until last week, I have mostly eaten oysters raw, on the half shell, and once in a glass of champagne (only sort of on purpose). They were the kind of food associated with dinner jackets, Ibsen plays, or Grand Central station. The first time I drove by the barbecue/seafood/whatever else store by my house in Savannah and saw them selling hundred-pound sacks of oysters, I was a bit confused. I'm surprised it took me a month and a half of living in Savannah to figure out that like most other things in Georgia, oysters are great fried.
A pile of deep-fried oysters served in a po'boy with tartar sauce offers a wholly different vision of the little bivalves than the ice-and-champagne model. Oysters, far from the upper-class vision I had of them, are filter feeders at the very bottom of the marine food chain, and have been a staple of human diets since prehistory. To archaeologists, piles of shells are often a good indicator of human civilization.
An oyster is a powerful textural experience any way you serve it, and breading just adds another factor to the equation. A bad fried oyster ends up chalky as the insides solidify, but when done right the breading pops open to the teeth and bleeds salty juices. A huge pile of these things can be overwhelming, which is why I prefer fried oysters in a sandwich--the familiar experience of bread helps to ease you into the oysters.
The local, wild varieties of oysters in the Savannah region have a tendency to grow in nasty-looking clumps that need breaking with a shovel--grittier and saltier than other varieties. They're mostly used for oyster roasts, where people will take oysters from one of those hundred-pound bags, spread them out on top of a big fire, cover them in burlap and then go about breaking the clusters and prying the shells open with short knives. The tourists don't go for that as much.
The oyster restaurants on the river mostly serve farmed oysters. They grow bigger and more regularly, and while they still look like yellow slime, for people who never have seen an oyster before they're a more appealing version of yellow slime.
As it turns out, farmed oysters are one of the most ecologically sound protein sources there are. Being filter feeders means they don't result in the same net loss of protein as in farming carnivorous fish like salmon, and they require such pristine waters that they don't come with the pollution problems of shrimp farming.
Seafood sustainability is a terrifying concept, both in how hard it is to understand and the lurking presence of a complete collapse of oceanic ecosystems. But a good first step to eating ecologically from the oceans is to start moving down the food chain. Large, predatorial fish like tuna and marlin are hunted to extinction and filled with mercury, but our filter-feeding friends like oysters are less likely to disappear any time soon.
Wild oyster populations have suffered from pollution and overfishing over the years--perhaps most notably the tragic collapse of New York oyster fishing in the early twentieth century. Farmed oysters, however, seem to be a safe bet for everyone--except for the squeamish.
If you're in Savannah, River Street has a number of oyster bars that all serve essentially the same thing for essentially the same prices. If picking one is important, though, I'd recommend getting a bucket of steamed oysters from Bernie's Oyster Shack along with a few pints of the Atlanta-brewed Sweetwater 420. For the swankier seafood experience, try the famously haunted Olde Pink House.
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