This Valentine's Weekend May Be Your Best Chance to Eat Oysters for Years to Come

Oyster Lovers Unite
This Valentine’s weekend may be your best chance to eat oysters for years to come

Nearly 4 inches long, the Sand Dune oyster from Prince Edward Island was so plump it was bulging out of its shell “like a large breast in a small brassiere,” as Rodney Clark, the owner of Rodney’s Oyster House in Toronto, put it. Intensely briny and wonderfully sweet, the big, fat, beige-colored oyster tasted like a big mouthful of salty butterscotch ice cream.

Clark, an oyster expert, had a lot to say about the oyster’s reputation as an aphrodisiac, a subject that often comes up around Valentine’s Day. Instead of the usual nod-nod, wink-wink, “let’s just say” explanation that most oyster authorities give, Rodney launched into an embarrassingly detailed yarn about a hooker nicknamed “the cat woman.” She came in all the time and trolled the bar at Rodney’s. After sharing some oysters with a guy, she would slip a hand into his lap and grope him. “It was quite a floor show for the people at the tables next to the bar,” Rodney recalled. “We finally had to ask her to leave.”

Sandy Ingber, head chef and oyster buyer at the Grand Central Oyster Bar in New York, says he's bringing in extra oysters for Valentine’s weekend
Robb Walsh
Sandy Ingber, head chef and oyster buyer at the Grand Central Oyster Bar in New York, says he's bringing in extra oysters for Valentine’s weekend
Jon Rowley, known as the P.T. Barnum of the oyster industry, made Totten Inlet Virginica oysters famous
Robb Walsh
Jon Rowley, known as the P.T. Barnum of the oyster industry, made Totten Inlet Virginica oysters famous

Clark’s restaurant has an artful collection of black-and-white bearded oyster photos taken by famous photographers hanging in the oyster bar’s men’s room. Besides being an oyster expert, Clark’s a former art student, and oyster-related erotica is one of his favorite genres.

Valentine’s Day is one of the busiest times of the year at Rodney’s. Oysters are to Valentine’s Day what turkey is to Thanksgiving. And this Valentine’s weekend may be the best time to eat oysters in recent American history. There are plenty of oysters on the market, and the recession is keeping prices low. While many restaurants reported dismal holiday sales figures, oyster sales were up.

“We have been riding an oyster high since the turn of the century, and the oyster business is still hot,” says Sandy Ingber, head chef/oyster buyer at the Grand Central Oyster Bar in New York. “There doesn’t seem to be a letdown in oyster demand.” The busiest oyster bar in the country is buying extra supplies for Valentine’s weekend—Ingber expects to sell around 10,000 half-shell oysters on Friday and Saturday alone.

On the West Coast, Bill Taylor of Taylor Shellfish in Shelton, Washington, says he can’t produce enough oysters to meet the ever-higher demand. And on the Gulf Coast, Jim Gossen at Louisiana Foods reports holiday oyster sales were up around 25 percent over last year and orders for Valentine’s Day are brisk.

Better enjoy it while you can. Marine biologists and oyster experts aren’t so optimistic about Valentine’s Day 2010. Hurricanes Katrina, Rita, Gustav and Ike have limited the Gulf oyster harvest and damaged oyster reefs. And failures in West Coast hatcheries may be the result of an even-more-disturbing problem.

Ocean acidification is a worldwide phenomenon related to the accumulation of excess carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. The ocean absorbs the carbon dioxide, which makes the water more acidic. This increased acidity has myriad effects on ocean chemistry. Among other things, it retards the ability of marine microorganisms to turn calcium into shell. Ocean acidification has already been blamed for a slowdown in the creation of coral reefs. It may also be the reason that oyster larvae in West Coast hatcheries are dying before they form shells.

Oyster-lovers could be in for a rough couple of years. When the current crop of mature oysters is sold out, predictions are there won’t be enough new oysters to meet demand.

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I wish I could tell you where to get a Sand Dune this Valentine’s weekend, but you probably wouldn’t think much of it anyway. That’s because I visited Rodney’s Oyster House in the first week of December, the absolute peak of the Canadian oyster season. By mid-December, Canadian waters get so cold that the oysters stop feeding and the bays on Prince Edward Island freeze over. By February, the oysters have shrunk up in their shells.

If you want to eat great oysters, you need to check the weather report, Clark explained. You hear a lot about how the flavor of an oyster comes from the water where it’s grown. But you don’t hear much about how dramatically the flavor of every oyster changes with the weather. In fact, seasonality may be as important as geography when it comes to buying oysters.

At their peak of flavor, oysters are bulging with fat and completely opaque, Clark said. To pluck them from the water at their maximum “ripeness,” you need to understand the life cycle of an oyster. As the water gets colder in the fall, oysters fatten up with a carbohydrate compound called glycogen. To our palate, glycogen tastes like sugar. In the spring, when the water warms, the oyster slowly converts glycogen to gonad in preparation for reproduction. As it does, it begins tasting fishier. Then in the early summer, the oyster spawns and loses much of its mass and nearly all of its flavor.

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