An Oyster by Any Other Name

Branch Water Tavern 005.jpg
Pepper Grove oyster on the half shell at Branch Water Tavern.
At this past weekend's inaugural Foodways Texas symposium, one of the most eagerly anticipated seminars wasn't held in a conference room, and it didn't come with a PowerPoint presentation. Attendees instead slurped down all manner of freshly shucked Gulf oysters at Galveston's classic seafood restaurant, Gaido's, as oyster specialists like Robb Walsh, Jon Rowley, Jim Gossen, Tracy Woody and Dr. Sam Ray explained the benefits of giving those oysters the most important thing that a food can have: a name.

As Hanna Raskin of the Dallas Observer pointed out in her recap of the evening, "More than a century ago, there wasn't any such thing as a 'gulf oyster.' Oysters were offered under specific place names -- a tradition revived this weekend."

Raskin continued, "The fantastic buffet sparked plenty of conversation, which is part of the rationale for reinstituting appellations."

When I talked to Jon Rowley last Friday as I dropped by Louisiana Foods, he echoed Raskin's sentiments in a discussion prior to the weekend's events. Giving something a name -- an appellation -- gives it power, gives it a story, gives it a sense of history and interest that wouldn't otherwise exist. A name is a talisman.

And Gulf oysters can use the magical powers that a talisman confers at a time when events like the BP oil spill and the constant threat of Vibrio vulnificus -- exacerbated in some parts of the Gulf by the oil from the spill -- both remain at the forefront of consumers' minds when they think of our native Texas oysters.

Consider the Apalachicola oyster from Florida.

2750882465_b442776d4e_z.jpg
Photo by Hessee
Pepper Grove, off the Bolivar Peninsula.
If an oyster merely has name of its own, diners are able to pick out that type of oyster from all the millions of others harvested from the Gulf each year and confer a kind of intangible yet viscerally important sense of meaning onto it.

More importantly, a consumer doesn't immediately associate an Apalachicola with the Gulf of Mexico -- they think of it as a high-quality, specially obtained prize, one for which they will eagerly shell out far more than just $10 a dozen, unlike our own cheap Gulf oysters.

That's not to say that cheap Gulf oysters don't have their place. Luxury and value can coexist on the Texas coast. Oysters given definition with an appellation will fetch far more money at market, giving oystermen options when they're out on their trawlers and adding another dimension to the industry.

Right now, you can get Pepper Grove oysters at several Houston-area restaurants. They were a crowd favorite at the Foodways Texas oyster dinner. Pepper Grove, as Robb Walsh explains on his blog, were once as prized in Texas as Apalachicolas are throughout the south: "At the time of the Civil War, oysters from Pepper Grove Reef in East Galveston Bay were very popular in oyster bars. So were the oysters from Lady's Pass and several other spots."

Branch Water Tavern, Bootsie's and Reef are three of the Houston restaurants that are currently serving these beauties on the half shell. "And so it begins," Tweeted Chef Bryan Caswell yesterday afternoon. "Texas oysters appellations on the menu at Reef."

"Get these bad mofros tonight," Chef Randy Rucker followed suit today as he posted a photo of his Pepper Grove stash on Twitter.

To get my fix, I stopped in at Branch Water yesterday, where Chef David Grossman described the Pepper Grove as "plump and sweet, and not too briny." He was exactly right. All it needed was the faintest squeeze of lemon juice on top. They're selling for $1.76 each. A pretty good deal for such a storied oyster.

And while the Gulf oyster harvest is still drastically smaller than in previous years, our chilly winter and recent cold snaps mean that right now is as good a time as any to enjoy the bounty that's just off our coast -- especially while they're still sweet and cheap.

Follow Eating Our Words on Facebook and on Twitter @EatingOurWords

My Voice Nation Help
20 comments
Sort: Newest | Oldest
bluemiles
bluemiles

In general, my oyster eating in the Pacific Northwest, Northeast, and Europe have made me into a believer in appellations as useful markers of quality and different tastes. I also like that we can still get more affordable gulf coast oysters of varying quality when an affordable fix is needed--something that was impossible when I lived in New England where all oysters tended to be expensive. I am also a big fan of anything that helps keep local fishermen/oystermen/shrimpers in business and more capable of making a living wage. It's rough work with narrow margins.

Mr. Stoops and Mr. Gossen, where can we buy gulf coast oysters with special appellations locally for home consumption? I'd rather pop them open myself and spend my savings on beer.

Jim Gossen
Jim Gossen

Sorry for the typo but I meant to say I would gladly pay the premium to have the best available.

J im Gossen
J im Gossen

I have wanted to have fisherman separate their best oysters from their average ones for years. I know that today when I have to take oysters to suppers to feed friends, I will now choose the Pepper Groves, Ladies Pass, Hanna's Reef and will gladly may the premium to know I am serving the best available oysters at my plant that day. I love oysters and have had the opportunity to try many wonderful tasting oysters but there is something about eating and looking at the best specimens out there. Quality come in many forms!

Robb
Robb

There are not the same oysters that go into the bag. http://www.robbwalsh.com

Old Salt
Old Salt

What does that mean? By the way, if the foodie/marketers are trying to establish a lineage of quality that goes back to the Civil War, consider that East Bay is radically different today. The mudshell industry significantly reduced the expanse of reef that once covered East and lower Galveston Bay. Rollover Pass, the Intracoastal Waterway and the Houston Ship Channel all played their part in reconfiguring the bay and the tides that feed and cleanse it. I, for one, plan to reserve a smirk and a "no thank you" for the first waiter who tries to upsell me a Pepper Grove oyster.

Old Salt
Old Salt

As a native of Chambers County and someone who's been fishing and eating from the bay for many years, this talk about Pepper Grove oysters sounds like marketing then and marketing now. At one time, most of East Bay and lower Galveston Bay was a continuous oyster reef. The idea that bivalves from the Pepper Grove "appellation" were distinct is somewhat fishy (and more than a little snooty). Today, Pepper Grove is a relatively small patch of shell compared to Hanna's, Deep and other reefs. What's to keep someone from marketing oysters from other parts of East Bay as Pepper Grove oysters? The reefs just aren't that far apart, and it's disputable that the oysters themselves taste any better. But mark my words: It's just a matter of time before high-end restaurants and retailers jump on the brand-wagon and begin marketing the general bounty of Galveston Bay as the superior-sounding Pepper Grove product.

Matthew
Matthew

as neat as it is to have our own branded oysters, forgive me for not getting excited that they now cost 3 times as much.

Katharine Shilcutt
Katharine Shilcutt

I completely understand and agree with your sentiment, save for this fact: There are still plenty of "regular," non-named, cheap Gulf oysters for us Texans to enjoy. And -- God willing -- there always will be.

Nate
Nate

Except that these are regular Gulf oysters. Saying what reef they are from does not give them any special properties. Apparantly it gives them a special price.

Jamescristinian
Jamescristinian

Pj, what is going ot happen when they close Rollover Pass ? The water flow you referenced will certainly be altered drastically. Many oysters come from East Bay where Rollover is. Do you think they will be just as good, as the salinity is likely to go up, and will they still charge premiums for the appellations from there? I think the whole thing is a ploy to jack up the prices of oysters, which can be passed on to consumers, by Gossen and restauranteurs. By the way, I buy my oysters at Gossen's establishment.

Nate
Nate

"these are not just the same oysters re-packaged and sold higher to rip consumers off" So these "named" oysters were sold for three times the going rate for generic Gulf oysters before they were named? Really? Who bought them, because I got a bridge to sell. Is the cost of gathering these oysters that much more?

Pj Stoops
Pj Stoops

Name calling and ridiculous statements aside, i think the point is being missed here. The overwhelming majority of Gulf oysters will always be sold and consumed cheaply- that is THE traditional oyster eating culture here, and I for one would never eat another Gulf oyster if all that was available were more expensive named oysters. I love eating out of straight Gulf sacks and no one, MOST of all the oystermen themselves, want to change the larger market.

As for appellations, these are not just the same oysters re-packaged and sold higher to rip consumers off. It is a fact (and a fact that may be quantitatively measured- which I would be happy to personally demonstrate to sceptics) that topography and water flow in certain areas produces a different tasting oyster- sometimes radically different. Named oysters will only ever be a rather small percentage of the total oyster harvest- and only a rather small percentage of restaurants and consumers will care about provenance. The difference in taste is there, as any of the guests at the oyster tasting in Galveston this weekend could attest. Indeed, the oystermen (even those dubious of the whole affair) themselves were impressed with the differences.

And yes, reefs from the same bay can certainly produce different tasting oysters...again a fact that I would be happy to demonstrate to any and all. All has to do with how oysters feed.

Finally, if you don't want to pay the higher price necessary to ensure provenance, then never fear- there will always be the good old plain Gulf oysters. Frankly, that's what I'll usually be eating myself...but that doesn't mean that a difference doesn't exist, and that legitimate markets can't be created for identifiable home-grown products.

caz
caz

wonderfully written!

P. T. Barnum
P. T. Barnum

There's a sucker born every minute. Gee, I will give my normally 75 cent gulf oysters a fancy name and charge a buck more each for them. Genius!

Seriously. Were these same oysters selling for inflated prices before their fancy name? Nope. Sucker.

Katharine Shilcutt
Katharine Shilcutt

I'll reiterate what I said above:

"That's not to say that cheap Gulf oysters don't have their place. Luxury and value can coexist on the Texas coast. Oysters given definition with an appellation will fetch far more money at market, giving oystermen options when they're out on their trawlers and adding another dimension to the industry."

Nate
Nate

What "luxury" is this? A place name is a luxury now? Or are these magical reefs, somehow different from reefs in the same bay? Must agree with PT above, people that pay extra for a NAME are indeed suckers.

Sterling
Sterling

Nate, it's very commonplace for oysters to be named based on where they were harvested from. If you've ever had oysters on the west coast you'd wonder why we ever abandoned the oyster harvesting names in the gulf. Look at all the different oysters that come from British Columbia: http://www.pacifickiss.ca/abou...

Grocerylist
Grocerylist

Nate... suckers? Don't you mean slurpers?

Kyle
Kyle

Nate, the people who tasted all the different locations at Foodways last weekend discerned differences. There's no magic about it, though. If you've not tried the different ones, how would you know?

Megan
Megan

You may not agree, Nate, but I'm sick of people bitching about how Texas and the Gulf don't get their due for seafood. We know that there's great seafood in the Gulf; what's it going to take to get the rest of the nation to notice? Maybe the appellations are what will get people in New York and California to finally pay attention to the Gulf oystermen and not dismiss them outright. Lord knows that they could use a little help right about now. And I recommend you read what PJ said below about the different reef ecosystems -- two oysters from two different reefs within a couple of miles can taste completely different because of salinity, food source, temperature, etc. Not only that, but people have been enjoying Pepper Grove oysters since the Civil War - that's 150 years of history there.

No one's stopping you from eating the cheap Gulf oysters. Hell, eat my share -- I don't even like oysters.

Now Trending

From the Vault

 

Loading...