By Kristi Willis
Photography by Marshall Wright
Ordering oysters on the half shell can feel like a whirlwind tour around coastal retreats—Malpeques from Prince Edward Island, Blue Points from Connecticut or Wellfleets from Massachusetts. Yet, on many menus, oysters from the Gulf of Mexico are listed simply as Gulf oysters with no unique moniker, known as an “appellation,” describing their point of origin. That hasn’t always been the case. In a Galveston Daily News article from 1902, the writer extols the delights of oysters from Ladies Pass, Pepper Grove and Deer Island. But by the 1970s, Texas oysters had lost their appellations.
The homogenization started when Chesapeake Bay—overharvested and infested with oyster-killing parasites—stopped producing enough oysters to meet demand. East Coast suppliers scooped up the Gulf oysters—intentionally dropping their appellations so that consumers would assume they were local. Little by little, the names slipped away until oysters harvested from Texas to Florida were known only by their generic label.
In an effort to revive the appellations, Foodways Texas, a nonprofit organization dedicated to preserving Texas food culture, hosted a panel and tasting in February 2011 to highlight the differences in oysters from around the Gulf. The buffet featured 12 different varieties from a swath stretching from East Bay, Florida, to Aransas Pass, Texas.
“There are distinct differences,” notes panel participant Levi Goode of Houston’s Goode Company Seafood, “even between the five different reefs in Galveston Bay, depending on water flow and how close the oysters are to freshwater runoff.” Goode was inspired to host a similar tasting at his restaurant and feature the oysters throughout the season. “Lots of our customers are fishermen and like being able to ask for the oysters by name…understanding geographically where they’re from.”
Oysters require both freshwater and saltwater to survive, and the balance of the two determines the size and flavor of the oyster. Within the same bay, oysters from one reef may be meatier than those from a reef just a few feet away, while another reef across the pass might yield mollusks with a saltier flavor. The point of harvest conveys to the customer much more than mere geography.
Several disasters affecting different parts of the Gulf reinforced the need for the industry to regionalize the names of the oysters. The BP oil spill that caused serious damage to the Louisiana coast scared consumers away from seafood in other parts of the Gulf as well, even though there was no damage to the Texas reefs or waters. Branding Texas seafood separately became imperative to the survival of the industry.
Oystermen can also charge more for the appellation oysters because they require more labor. Jim Gossen of Louisiana Foods, a seafood supplier based in Houston, explains, “It’s the difference between taking a shovel and loading up oysters and handpicking them. In a typical sack of oysters, you may get two to three great oysters that are shaped well and have plenty of meat in them. But, it can’t be just about the money; it has to be about the quality. I want the oysters to have that wow factor.”
Gossen adds that the generic Gulf oyster still has its place at the table. “The appellation oysters aren’t for an oyster bar like Acme in New Orleans, where they are cranking out the oysters, but better suited for a place where they can present them and that has the clientele that will pay for the extra work that goes into it.”
Trace, tucked inside Austin’s W hotel, featured Texas oysters on its menu during the 2010 season. “In our constant pursuit to locate and utilize the best and most unique ingredients our region has to offer, we are very proud to be serving the Gulf appellation oysters,” says Chef Paul Hargrove. “When they were in season last year in our opening, we showcased them, and this year we plan to do the same. When the Gulf oysters are available, that’s all we use.”
Unfortunately, the drought is another disaster that has wreaked havoc on the oyster reefs. As of November 2011, Texas Parks and Wildlife shut down the oyster beds in the Texas Gulf Coat waters because of red tide—an algal bloom that’s exacerbated by the high salinity of the waters due to drought. Without rain, the red tide could put an end to this oyster season before it even gets started.
Buddy Treybig of Arnold’s Seafood Oyster House in Matagorda warned, “It looks bleak, but we’re still getting our boats ready and hoping to have a good season. Who knows—not working the beds in October could mean they’ll be in better shape when the season starts. If we get rain, it wouldn’t be too late to have a good season.”
With a little rain and a bit of curiosity from diners, Texas oysters, touting their proud appellations, could take a more prominent place at the table this season.
For updates on the status of the Gulf oyster beds, call 800-685-0361.