"Men have enjoyed eating oysters since they were not much more than monkeys." -- from M.F.K. Fisher's 1941 book, Consider the Oyster
Although my parents are both natives of Louisiana and I've spent considerable time on the open waters of the Gulf Coast, I'm a latecomer to oyster eating. It wasn't until I reached my early 30s when I learned to appreciate the dazzling display of a dozen live mollusks, served on a bed of ice at the legendary Casamento's Restaurant in uptown New Orleans.
In Memphis, I discovered Anderton's, where I ate baked oysters dressed with breadcrumbs, herbs, and Worcestershire sauce and finished in the Rockefeller or Bienville style. I slurped down raw oysters offered at a bargain price of $4 per half-dozen, and I even tried them stewed in half-and-half. Then the Midtown landmark closed, and I've been oysterless ever since.
If, like me, you've been hankering for an hour at the oyster bar, where shuckers patiently eye your plate, awaiting the nod for another dozen, you'll be happy to know that there are plenty of local places where you can get your fix.
Blue Fish, in Cooper-Young, has a gleaming, tiled oyster bar where you can try all the traditional dishes or nouvelle variations, such as the oysters baked in a Memphis Mary mignonette sauce. Along with the Gulf Coast oysters harvested in Houma, Louisiana, executive chef Richard Grenamyer also offers varietals, including the Kumamotos from Puget Sound; the Maryland-harvested Rappahannock; and the ever-popular Northeastern Blue Points.
"We have suppliers everywhere in the world, so getting them isn't the issue -- the price is," Grenamyer wryly notes, adding that Kumamotos are currently going for $100 per bushel of 120 oysters. He sells the pricier, more uncommon species à la carte, allowing diners to sample a variety of flavors without -- pardon the pun -- shelling out a ton of cash. His Gold Band Gulf Coast oysters also fetch top price, costing $14 per dozen on the half shell.
If you want that familiar Anderton's taste, head east to either of the Half Shell's locations, on Mendenhall or on Winchester. In business since 1973, the Half Shell has procured their Gulf Coast oysters from Amite, Louisiana, company Joey Oysters Inc. -- the same outfit that supplied Anderton's -- for the last eight years.
"We go through 60 to 80 bushels a week. That's more than 2 million oysters we've gotten from Joey," says Half Shell executive chef Darrell Smith. "Mr. Anderton and I were the only two places in town to run that exact same oyster. If we got into a bind, we'd call each other."
Smith has six shuckers per restaurant "who can really produce" raw oysters, which run $8.75 per dozen. He also offers weekly oyster specials, including a Rockefeller Nuevo, which features fried oysters topped with a Pernod cream sauce. On November 15th, Smith is rolling out a two-week long "Oyster Festival," with raw, served on the half shell samples of Pacific oysters, including the Canadian Chef Creek oyster and the Washington State Maple Point and Windy Point varietals; and Atlantic oysters such as the Tatamagouche, from Nova Scotia; the Cockenoe, from Long Island Sound; and the Wellfleet, from Cape Cod, Massachusetts. He'll also be making an "oyster-laden menu" replete with oyster loafs, oyster stew, and oyster sauces during the festival. (Also see page 48 for information about an oyster dinner at Grove Grill.)
While some landlocked oyster lovers are skittish about the current crop of Gulf Coast mollusks, neither Smith or Grenamyer has seen much of a drop-off in quality since hurricanes Katrina and Rita.
"We have seen a little change in the last few months, because so many beds were ravaged by the storms and the harvest hasn't had a chance to catch up," says Smith, who maintains that size but not taste has been somewhat affected.
"Put one on a saltine, add a touch of hot sauce, and I'm ready to rock-and-roll," he says.
"The Gulf hasn't had a good year. Counts are down, and fishermen aren't harvesting as many, but that's cyclical," says Grenamyer. "Because the oyster functions as a filter, you can take one out of horribly polluted water and put it in pristine water, and, within 30 days, it will clean itself out. It will be totally edible, which is what makes an oyster different from a fish or a shrimp. The ones we've had this year are as juicy and meaty tasting as ever.
"Yes," Grenamyer admits, "people have gotten ill from eating raw oysters, but that's because they're eating dead, rotten oysters, not living ones.
"I'm a raw guy. I just like to slide 'em on down."