Let's Start With Oysters


ESSAYISTS young and old, known and unknown, are invited to compete for the Club. A prize of $250 is offered for the most distinctive essay of 1000 words.

MAN has always eaten — and praised — the oyster because he liked its succulent taste. But only in recent years have the scientists caught up with the gourmets in giving the oyster his due. To the surprise even of oyster lovers, we know now that the modest bivalve contains all the minerals necessary to a healthful functioning of the human body; further, that the oyster has contrived to suck them all up out of the seas in the right nutritional amounts.

Of these minerals iodine is the most interesting. You may recall that — among other uses — it is essential to a smooth functioning of the thyroid gland. In states where the iodine content in food is low, our departments of health find goitre prevalent. So oysters are widely prescribed today as a goitre preventive. Again the iron, copper, and manganese which oysters swallow and predigest from our coastal reefs make an oyster diet curative for ‘ pale-bloodedness, ‘ or what your doctor diagnoses as nutritional anæmia. Lastly, calcium and phosphorus are bone builders. Oysters are rich in both — and so parents give oyster Stews to children.

If oysters could talk — as they do in Through the Looking-Glass — they might have told the Walrus and the Carpenter a very sad story, and a moral one, of the ill effects of bad habits and laziness. All members of that crustacean family — the name is Lamellibranch—have through generations of sedentary living degenerated from the days of their forefathers. But the oyster has paid more dearly for his laziness than any of his cousins. A talkative oyster could point out — if reminiscent — that he once lived an active and locomotive life, billions of years ago, and once enjoyed in a modest way the use of feet (pedal ganglia) and even of an ear (auditory organ). But now, as a result of sitting around in a shell for so long, both have disappeared. Moreover, his genealogists report that he has degenerated in other ways. His brain (cerebral ganglia) has grown ‘very minute,’ and also, which seems but natural, ‘his posterior region has greatly enlarged.’

I find my friends invariably incredulous when I tell them that every oyster has a heart, a brain, a circulatory system (his blood is gray like his flesh), a very efficient respiratory mechanism (which extracts oxygen from eight to ten gallons of water a day), genitalia, lips, liver, stomach, and intestine. Most of these details escape the average oyster eater, who notices only the large tough muscle which clamps together the two halves of the shell, enabling the oyster to open up in order to feed from the sea and expel its spawn, and to snap to in the face of an enemy.

The oyster’s charaeteristies as a parent are a scandal to more conventional Crustacea. To begin with, an oyster can be both male and female — although he can’t be both at the same time. For a time in the spawning season an oyster will produce sperm only, then, a few weeks after, only eggs. The spawn are expelled and, as free swimming creatures, fertilize one another in the open sea. Zoölogists mark the oyster as one of the more prolific of sea-born organisms. Fortynine million eggs were found in one female at the Chesapeake laboratory, and in a single male oyster nine hundred million sperm.

The oyster’s way of life is the real reason why his body becomes in the end a dish for dinner that is both tender and nutritious. Our coastal reefs and harbors where the oyster settles are full of vegetable and mineral foods that have flowed into them from innumerable fresh-water streams. So the oyster finds it easy to absorb food in minute particles, to digest and predigest them for man. His lack of bone or muscles — which he is too lethargic to need — makes him a tender morsel which can be eaten whole.

‘Oyster farming’ is one of the oldest industries in the United States, and dates almost from the time when Cape Cod Indians taught the Pilgrim Fathers to eat oysters — which kept them alive during their first winter in America. Oysters rank foremost among the sea-food industries of the world, second among the fisheries in the United States in point of income to our fishermen, and first in number of men employed (sixty to seventy thousand). Oysters can be taken from the waters of every Atlantic state except Maine and New Hampshire, and on the Pacific coast oystermen dredge them off the coasts of Washington, Oregon, and California. All told, America produces an annual crop of eighteen million bushels a year, or three fourths of the world’s crop. It is worth about fifteen million dollars.

After Labor Day the public begins to cry for oysters, and refrigerated express trains are ready to carry them to all parts of America. Nearly all oyster eaters have been trained in the tradition that oysters must not be eaten in the months whose names lack an R in them (May, June, July, and August). Today this R-less tradition is not much heeded — it has long been disregarded by natives of oyster-growing regions. A biological fact explains the taboo. June, July, and August are the spawning season. In those months the oyster is less plump, solid, or tasty.

Unfortunately America’s attitude toward her sea-food industries was a ‘get-richquick’ one; we have dredged away much of our original heritage in shell food, without reseeding the beds or fighting the oysters’ enemies. But at last we have begun to mend our ways. The United States Bureau of Fisheries, Maryland’s own state bureau, and others are mobilizing to attack the problem with all the latest findings of sea conservationists. And now economists have added another point, eagerly seconded by relief bureaus in our coastal states — that a really rejuvenated oyster industry would mean 20,000 additional jobs for unemployed Americans. In short, all kinds of people are saying, with new emphasis, ‘ Well, why don’t we start with oysters?