There is a well-known food adage that says you should only eat oysters in a month that has an ‘r’ in it. If you are risk-adverse, stick with that sage advice. However, I like to test boundaries, so let’s investigate this dire shellfish warning.
The ‘r’ warning comes from a old mythological fable about a Pirate Sorcerer who lost his one true-love, a summer loving mermaid princess, to a man-eating oyster. Heartbroken and suffering from a nasty bout of scurvy, the pirate cursed the warmer summer months with plague and disease. Ok, I just made that up. If you like sciencey facts, the summer months create prime breeding temperatures for “red tides,” or large blooms of algae along the coast and estuaries. The toxins can be very nasty and are sadly absorbed by shellfish, including oysters. If you eat an oyster with toxins, you will most likely get sick with paralytic shellfish poisoning or worse, you’ll die from respiratory paralysis.
Mermaid Princess – Raw Consumption
Here’s the thing – I like oysters and I wanted them in the hottest most red-tidey weather. Scary warning and all, I have ordered oysters in nice restaurants in the summer. I’ve also had some nice crab cakes in July, so clearly there is a lot of shellfish fearmongering out there. I wanted to know where and how to get safe oysters.
I heard there were farms that grew oysters exclusively in cold water as to not be affected by algae blooms, even in the hottest of summer months. After much Googling, we found an oyster farm on the coast in Oregon. The counter girl informed us that the larger local oysters that are grown in an estuary slough environment did have a ‘warning’. We could buy them, but we would have to cook them. I was confused as some basic research will inform you that you can’t cook away a red tide toxin. Cooked, broiled or sauteed, if the oyster has that toxin in it, it’s there to stay and you can still get very sick.
After telling the counter girl that she was trying to murder me, I did learn that in addition to red-tide algae blooms, there are also Vibrio bacteria infections that can make you sick with diarrhea, vomiting and abdominal pain. Raw or undercooked shellfish, particularly raw oysters are the primary culprit for Vibrio bacterial infections. Coincidentally, this bacteria also thrives during warm months – but you CAN cook it and destroy the bacteria, unlike the red-tide toxin. So while these large Oregon oysters did not have red tide toxin, they sure as heck had Vibrio.
The thought of having to cook something so I didn’t get violently ill, made me…well, ill. I asked if there were any cold water oysters that were OK to eat raw. I was presented with beautiful wavy shelled Kumos. Kumos are grown in cold northern Oregon to Canadian ocean waters so the risk level of getting sick is very low. Restaurants and licensed vendors typically source from these waters in the summer months. Note that even the finest restaurants will have a small warning about eating uncooked shellfish on every menu. The risk is always there, regardless of where you source from.
However, I was going to get my oyster in a ‘non’ R month! Breaking the rules!
I haven’t shucked an oyster in years. The last time I did it, I got so frustrated with a bucket of raw oysters in Savannah, Georgia that I sent it back to the kitchen to get steamed because otherwise I would have starved. That was also in a ‘non’ R month, and yet here I am. Maybe it was the mermaid princess who locked down those infected oysters so I would give up in exasperation and cook steam them. Whew. Take that, science.
For the summer months, I prefer to buy tiny Kumamoto oysters from cooler waters.
Tiny Kumamoto oysters have a small rounded delicate shell and with a little refresher instruction, my husband and I were able to cleanly shuck our dozen.
They were fresh, small and tasted like sea (in a good way). I am really getting into lightly broiled oysters, so I tried a simple recipe of shucked oyster with a tiny pat of butter on top, salt and a sprig of cilantro. I put it in a hot 400 degree broiler for maybe 2 minutes tops. The edges of the oyster firmed and turned up slightly and that’s how I knew it was done. I squeezed fresh lemon juice on all of them and then they were ready to be devoured. They were very tasty and best of all, no one got sick.
Here are some more oysters to consider from cooler waters in the summer months, and ALWAYS buy from a reputable source!
Scouting out your own in the waterways in NOT advised.