Provisions: Our Oyster Months
A misconstrued pearl of folk wisdom suggests that oysters should only be enjoyed in the months containing the letter “R”.
This was good advice when oysters were harvested in the wild. Abstaining from oysters during the months of May through August when oysters were busy...well... making baby oysters, was considered beneficial for re-populating stocks and giving the bivalves time to spawn and reach their full potential of briny richness.
Inconsistent and informal refrigeration practices also made summertime oyster consumption risky. Additionally, certain “red tide” algae known to be toxic to humans and present in warm summer tidewaters where oysters were bedded, also contributed to the health risks associated with consuming wild oysters during those non-R months.
Indeed, wild oyster populations in the United States had long suffered the consequences of industrial and agricultural contamination of marine environments that all but shut down oystering operations permanently, making oyster consumption a near rarity during any month. Efforts by environmental groups and acts of Congress began to reverse centuries of pollution in once thriving and pristine waters.
These days, farmed oyster varieties such as hybrid triploids are bred to be sterile and can be harvested throughout the year. New aquaculture technology, strict harvesting protocols, and reliable modern refrigeration have helped make oyster enjoyment a year-round luxury.
Efforts to reintroduce oysters in areas that had been polluted and over-dredged to the brink have made a marked positive impact on marine environments, and revived an industry that was near total collapse seventy years ago. Sanctuary beds where a natural habitat can be created is a trifecta of benefit to waterways, (a single oyster can filter up to 10 gallons of water a day) watermen, and consumers.
Depending on harvest locations, each oyster variety also presents its unique flavor or “merrior” that reflects the varying salinity levels and oyster-nourishing plankton found in the different bays, tidal flats, and inlets of their reef-like habitats.
Hoopers Island oyster farming, Chesapeake Bay
So now that the coast is clear for partaking in the mineraly morsels, it’s time to enjoy the delicious mollusks in any month or season! The experience of tucking into an icy plateau of Wellfleets, Chincoteagues, or Olympias can be elevated by oyster’s best friend, found at the crossroads of ostreiculture and viniculture: the lean, clean, tart edge of a Sauvignon Blanc, Chablis, or Riesling.
What better inspiration to pair oysters with a favorite fruit of the vine than a reflection from oyster (and wine) lover Papa Hemingway himself:
"As I ate the oysters with their strong taste of the sea and their faint metallic taste that the cold white wine washed away, leaving only the sea taste and the succulent texture, and as I drank their cold liquid from each shell and washed it down with the crisp taste of the wine, I lost the empty feeling and began to be happy and to make plans."
- A Moveable Feast
Madhouse Oysters, Fishing Creek, Maryland
It is said t’was a brave soul who ate the first oyster, and it was indeed a genius who created the classic accoutrement for them. Mignonette, laced with bracing vinegar and flecks of freshly cracked pepper, is the perfect condiment to serve with a chilled platter of oysters on the half shell.
Makes about 1/2 cup and will keep, refrigerated, up to four weeks
¼ cup rice vinegar
¼ cup red wine vinegar
1 tablespoon minced shallots
¼ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1 bay leaf
1. Combine all ingredients and thoroughly chill before spooning over freshly shucked oysters.
"A loaf of bread, the Walrus said, is what we chiefly need: Pepper and vinegar besides are very good indeed-- Now if you're ready, Oysters, dear, we can begin to feed!"
- Lewis Carroll, “The Walrus and the Carpenter”
Illustration by Sir John Tenniel
Chef Mary Howley is the culinary consultant to the RCS Hospitality Group and a former Executive Chef of her own catering company, several country clubs, and fine dining restaurants. She studied throughout Europe and honed her skills on the East Coast working with a myriad of culinary styles. She had the honor to serve as research and development chef for Food Unlimited, and held the position of Pastry Chef in two James Beard Dinner Events.