Heroes in a Half Shell: Sex, Death & Oysters by Robb Walsh [book review]

It's tempting to try to put Robb Walsh's Sex, Death & Oysters (buy on Amazon) in the same category as other single-topic culinary books, like Anne Mendelson's Milk, or Jennifer McLagan's Fat. There are certainly similarities: a history of the ingredient and its cultivation, a smattering of recipes both traditional and innovative, and a generally pervasive feeling that the author is trying to prove something to the reader.

But unlike McLagan and Mendelson, with their rapt audiences who already readily consume dairy and lipids, Walsh isn't preaching to the choir. A native Texan, Walsh's cause is his home state's own Galveston Bay Oysters. Commonly thought to come from the polluted waters of the Gulf of Mexico and more often than not carrying the deadly bacteria Vibrio vulnificus, Texas oysters have been banned for sale in California and are generally avoided outside of the South. Walsh thinks this is absurd, and goes to entertaining lengths to make his case.

Galvestion Bay Oysters. Photograph from http://www.robbwalsh.com/oysters/

"Who would eat oysters that come out of that water?"

Walsh goes to great lengths to prove their safety, ranting (in his own words "a little too dramatically") to a couple out-of-state "oyster snobs": "The Gulf Coast is the last place in America with wild oysters. It's the only place where you can still sit down in an old-fashioned oyster saloon and eat oysters for pennies apiece. The end of the golden era of American oyster culture is happening right here in front of our eyes."

The fact that Gulf oysters don't actually come from the wretchedly polluted Gulf and instead from the freshwater-swept Galveston Bay is lost on the oyster snobs. Perhaps not lost, though, is the fact that — as it turns out — the presence of Vibrio vulnificus is only detectable in oysters collected from water warmer than 65 degrees. This handicaps the Texas harvesting season considerably, especially when compared to the colder waters of Long Island or Washington state — Texas (and, for that matter Louisiana and Mississippi) oysters are generally fine only between Christmas and Easter, absent a freak warm spell.

With this in mind, regulations have been proposed throughout the Gulf, with the goal of banning out-of-season harvesting. Besides being consumer-friendly, this idea has the profitable upside of making the product from the region more palatable to the high-paying fish markets on either coast. Surprisingly, Walsh finds that many Gulf oystermen oppose such regulations, either because they claim to have found ways around them (freezing summer oysters before selling them for cooked dishes) or because of a general Southern libertarian contrarianism ("If you let them make one rule, they are going to make another rule").

"The French insist on a tart white wine with oysters. Texans tend toward cold Lone Star beer."

Walsh is a journalist at heart, and in that vein his book intermittently strives for impartiality. To get a broader picture of the oyster's appeal, he travels throughout the coastal United States as well as Ireland, Great Britain and France. He eats his oysters with saltines and tabasco, with brown bread and Guinness, and with stirred (not shaken) gin martinis. He tours several oyster farms, and goes to the New Fulton Fish Market with Sandy Ingber of Grand Central Oyster Bar in Manhattan.

The places he visits tend to fall into two categories: they are either the laid back, no-fuss eateries of the American South (and I'd wager many of the Irish oyster bars he visited would fit into this category as well), or they are the upscale salons of France and London, of New York and San Francisco. Despite his journalistic attempt at remaining unbiased, it's clear which variety of oyster bar Walsh prefers: he's a Texan, and like most Texans I know he is firmly convinced that spending over thirty dollars on a dozen oysters is the wrong way to go.

Three Virginicas: Totten Inlet, Esperitu Santo, Apalachicola. Photograph from http://www.robbwalsh.com/oysters/

"The American oyster culture will experience a true revival when a lot more of us start eating oysters at home."

While Sex, Death, & Oysters will enlighten, inform, and entertain, what Walsh's book won't do is convince someone who finds oysters disgusting that they are in fact otherwise. This literary orgy of consumption will tantalize the converted, and may convince them to eat oysters they normally would've avoided. (Though frankly, I'm a little put off by the description of British oysters that taste like "licking the bottom of a boat.")

One thing this book did do, if nothing else, was inspire me to go out and try my first Galveston Bay oysters (though as of this writing we're a bit closer to the Easter endcap of the Texan oyster season that I'd have liked). As Walsh promised, they were different than any other oyster I've ever eaten: tremendous in size — some were half the size of my fist — with creamy, soft flesh that was an entirely different flavor than the briny, salty East Coast oysters that had previously made up the entirety of my oyster-eating repertoire. Consider me converted, Walsh.

Paula Forbes

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