Half-shell shock

More than a tasty morsel, the native Eastern oyster plays a crucial role in the health of the Chesapeake Bay ecosystem

Illustration by Robert Meganck

Consider the oyster.

Consider, in particular, which ancient human first endeavored to hack through the bivalve’s stony, fortressed exterior, beheld the glistening, yellowish-gray glob within, and thought, of all unlikely reactions: “Yum.”

Because let us be honest—this salty, sea-flavored squish of mucous doesn’t exactly kill it on first impressions. And yet, “To truly get the flavor of the oyster, you have to eat it raw with nothing on it,” insists Tommy Leggett, an oyster restoration and fisheries scientist with the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, but also a longtime waterman himself, and the owner of Chessie Seafood and Aquafarms on the York River near Gloucester Point.

If winemakers have their “terroir,” says Leggett, oyster aficionados speak of “merroir,” the distinctive flavor of a raw oyster that is defined by the water in which it has grown.

“They taste different depending on the salinity of the water and the mineral characteristics of the sediment the oyster grew on, and they are all good and they all have their own unique flavor,” says Leggett.

“Raw” here of course means not just “uncooked” but in fact “still alive,” so if you are less keen on experiencing a half-dozen on the half-shell, there are plenty of other ways to get your oyster on (roasted, grilled, gratinéed, frittered, po’boyed or pickled, for instance). Leggett admits he can’t resist a fried oyster, and for many people, nothing says Christmas morning like a flotilla of oysters bobbing in a pool of butter and milk.

Oysters also, of course, have a reputation as seduction’s foodstuff, an aphrodisiac worthy of Casanova, who claimed to down dozens for breakfast. Scientific support for this notion is less than robust, although researchers made a small splash a few years ago by revealing that oysters and other bivalve mollusks serve up heady helpings of amino acids that might boost the production of sex hormones.

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