The Return of Gulf Oyster "Merroir"
It’s a well-understood phenomenon-- the sense of place that an agricultural product reflects. Done without manipulation, it’s a tell-tale signature of source. In wine, it’s called “terroir,” and when the origin is depths of the sea, the term is “merroir.”
The appellation system, or the process of naming a source location, is a proud tradition that was present in the oyster industry during the turn of the century. Gulf food critics at the time extolled the virtues of appellated sources such as Murder Point and Ladies Pass oysters. The first blow came with the mechanization of food after World War II. Canning and preserving was all the rage, and even the delicate oyster couldn’t escape the tin can. Canned smoked oysters could be found nationwide, naturally bearing no appellation, as mass-processing is the antithesis of regional specialization. The problem further intensified in the 1970s along the east coast when overharvesting of Chesapeake Bay oyster beds led to a prolific infestation of oyster-killing parasites that nearly shut down the industry. Seafood houses in order to stay afloat turned to the similarly flavored Gulf Coast oyster, completely dropping any associated nomenclature from their menus hoping and praying their clientele didn’t notice the substitution. Slowly but surely, that trend continued until almost all sourcing was removed. Menu selections might read “Fresh Raw Oysters” or “Gulf Oysters” at most.
Although oysters never exactly fell out of fashion along the coast, their uniqueness and delicacy was severely underrated if not outright ignored in the postindustrial years. Diners paid far more attention to the time of year than the site of origin, and all oysters were masochistically slathered in heavy cocktail sauce or grilled in flavorful butter and topped with cheese. Just ask Skeeter Phelan from the hit novel and film, “The Help.” She surmises, “oysters are just a vehicle for crackers and ketchup.” And she was not alone. Often seen as a cheap, quick source of sustenance, oyster bars received their heftiest cashflow when they advertised 25-cent oysters or All You Can Eat Oyster happy hours. Look no farther than the runaway success of gulf oyster giant Acme Oyster House where their pride and joy is the wall of fame listing how many dozens a patron has tucked away in one sitting (current Royal Street leader has smashed down 44 dozen).
But a major shakeup finally came with the Deepwater Horizon explosion and subsequent BP oil spill. Gulf coast seafood and tourism was dealt such a swift blow to income that there was no choice but to adapt. All of a sudden, gulf seafood diners became much, much more discerning about the origin of their foods, and since oysters lack fins, it became infinitely more important to know how and where they were grown and harvested. Coupled with growing sustainable food trends, customers very quickly became much more comfortable with operation that charged $2.50 per oyster and denoted the source site of the bivalve on the menu. Trusting the restaurateur did their homework was the smartest way to be at ease while downing a dozen knowing that the profits were supporting a suffering industry.
Falling lock-step with locavore food trends and ingredient origin stories, oyster farmers have increasingly taken steps to provide more diversity, transparency, and care for the array of oysterbeds that they tend. Whereas a decade ago you might have seen a oyster company’s name on a sack-tag and at absolute best a militaristic grid-site number, gulf coast oystermen are furthering the specialization of the briny bivalve and reaping all the benefits of specialty, place-driven foods.
So what are the appellations today? Short answer is that it is a process completely still in development. Just as the BP oil spill shook up the industry, it is re-mapping it as well. The appellations, or sources of origin, are continuously being researched and developed, though the current maps are shown below.
The most influential factors in an oyster’s taste and development are the salinity, temperature, and movement of the water. An oyster bed’s proximity to land denotes its salinity, with farther asea producing brinier subjects. Orientation to a river outlet produces more subtleties, meaning river delta beds produce more freshwater flavors including minerality. The warmer the water, the more phytoplankton and bacteria are produced for the oyster to chow down on, so the bigger and fattier they get. Like leaner, smaller oysters? Look for deeper shelf beds near tidal currents. Movement in the water surrounding the oysters causes them some stress, prevents overeating, and produces smaller, leaner, but very flavorful oysters. Diners should avoid consuming oysters during the summer months (most notably denoted by the months with names lacking “R”s), but this is not necessarily due to hot water creating more pungent or disease-prone specimens as is common wives-tale knowledge. Those summer months are prime breeding time, meaning the oysters of eating/breeding age are depleted, less flavorful, and of course are of huge importance if you want to have oysters next year.
Where to experiment? Restaurants throughout the gulf states are changing the way they sell the on the half-shell, making it far more common to see region-denoted offerings on menus at a higher price. Texas restaurateurs have been the avant-garde adopters such as Goode Company Seafood in Houston and Trace in Austin where oyster tastings have become popular. In New Orleans, new-kid and smash hit Seaworthy has taken this regional model and run with it after seeing marked success of Donald Link’s CBD sensation Peche.
As the appellated oyster industry continues to develop and dining tides begin to turn, expect to see more specialty oyster offerings throughout the Gulf Coast. $2-3 per shell is a small price to pay for distinct, delicious, and decidedly unique presentations on the old standby. Keep those P&Js, I’ll take some Massacre Island oysters anyday.