Galveston Bay was calm, the sky was blue, and the water temperature hovered at 60 degrees—perfect oyster weather. I stood on the deck of the Trpanj, a typical Texas oyster lug. Wide across the middle with a huge foredeck, it looked like a barge with an upturned nose. The captain steered from a wheel set up front where he could see the dredge, a five-foot metal-rake-and-net contraption that he dragged across the bottom of the shallow bay.
With a belch of exhaust and a roar like a tractor-trailer entering the highway, a powerful diesel motor spun a spool of cable that hauled up the dredge full of oysters and debris. The dredge swung on its chain, and two Mexican deckhands balanced it on a metal frame welded to the side of the deck before tipping its contents onto a worktable. The deckhands sorted the “keepers” out of the gray jumble. Then they shoved the empty shells and undersized oysters back overboard and dropped the dredge again.
The Trpanj is owned by oysterman Misho Ivic and named after his home village in Croatia. Misho’s son Michael had agreed to take me out on the oyster boat and show me how the dredging business worked. I studied a map of the Galveston Bay oyster reefs from the bow. There are four categories in Galveston Bay, Michael explained, pointing to them on the map.
The “prohibited” reefs are close to shore. They are closed to oystering due to the wastewater runoff they get from suburban lawns, cow pastures, and other possible sources of contamination. “Conditional” areas are open to fishing most of the time, but the game wardens rule them off-limits after heavy rains because of the runoff. “Open” oyster reefs are the public reefs that
Michael grabbed a dripping oyster from the pile of keepers on the deck, pried off the top shell and handed it to me. Shocked by its sudden exposure to the air, the oyster’s delicate lips contracted almost imperceptibly. I tilted it back and slurped the wet flesh into my mouth, chewing slowly. The flavor was salty, a little metallic, and surprisingly sweet.
Eating raw oysters is at once perverse and spiritual. A freshly shucked oyster enters your mouth while it is still alive and dies while giving you pleasure. I savored the wonderfully slick texture, delicate briny flavor, and marine aroma. But since oysters from the waters of Galveston Bay can carry harmful bacteria, I also found myself contemplating my mortality as I swallowed. It’s quite an exciting thing to put in your mouth, a meek and vulnerable living being brimming with bold seafood flavors and vivid fantasies—and the threat of death.
For the last 20 years, oysters have been making a comeback on the American food scene. And as a food writer living in one of the nation’s largest oyster-producing states, I was keen on learning more about them. With my camera and notebook constantly in hand, I asked a lot of questions.
Ivic and the oystermen on the Trpanj regarded me as an earnest idiot. The tried-and-true formula for writing about oysters is to go find colorful oystermen and copy down their stories. You go out on a boat or visit an oyster farm and eat some quivering mollusks on the spot, rave about your intense perception of terroir (or “merroir,” as the marine version of this poetic sense of place is sometimes known). And then you quote the oysterman on the important facts to know about oysters.
I attempted to employ this formula myself. But it didn’t work out. In the five years it [took] me to write [the] book, I asked too many questions. I never lost my passion for oysters. But I did lose my innocence. I learned that terroir, or merroir, or whatever you call it, is a very flexible concept.
I was eager and clueless when I climbed aboard the Trpanj to write my first article about oysters for the Houston Press. I called my feature “Sex, Death & Oysters,” just the sort of racy title an alternative weekly editor loves. I wrote about the oysters’ reputation as an aphrodisiac, and did a little investigative work on why tainted Texas oysters seemed [potentially lethal]. It was mainly a good excuse to go for a ride on an oyster boat and eat a lot of oysters.
I thought pollution would be a good angle. The waters of Galveston Bay that I could see were a frightening shade of mud brown. To our southwest, a line of rusty oil tankers were steaming in from the Gulf of Mexico, proceeding north through the bay and up the shipping lane toward the Houston Ship Channel. Lots of toxins are found in the sediment out in the Gulf of Mexico. Surely there were some environmental hazards to expose in Galveston Bay.
But I never did find any. The murkiness, or “turbidity,” as scientists call it, came from suspended sediments and plankton. “The Adriatic is beautiful blue,” Croatian-born Misho Ivie told me, “but there’s nothing living in it. It’s sterile. Galveston Bay looks muddy because the water is full of food. Good for the oysters, good for the crabs.”
I didn’t trust him, of course. East Coast and West Coast oystermen say that the waters of the Gulf of Mexico are filthy. And maybe they are. But oysters live in brackish water in freshwater estuaries, not in the Gulf of Mexico. And the scientists I interviewed said that Galveston Bay was in pretty good shape.
”We always fight the perception that the bay is polluted, but the reality is that the water quality overall is good,” Scott Jones, water and sediment quality coordinator for the Galveston Bay Estuary Program, told me. He said dissolved oxygen levels have gone up markedly in the last 30 years thanks to a cleanup of wastewater treatment plants mandated by the Clean Water Act ofl972.
Misho Ivie and a marine biologist named Dr. Sammy Ray put pollution into a historical perspective for me by comparing Galveston Bay to Chesapeake Bay. Chesapeake Bay produced millions of bushels of oysters in the 1800s, before it was polluted. It now produces about one percent of its historic peak. Conservationists in Maryland and Virginia are making progress and the oyster harvests are increasing, but since the surrounding wetlands were long ago destroyed, the long-term prospects are limited.
In 1900, Galveston Bay and a couple of other small bays in Texas produced a record 3.5 million pounds of oyster meat. But modern harvests regularly exceed that. In 2003, the largest harvest of oysters ever recorded was taken-6.8 million pounds, nearly double what was produced at the turn of the 20th Century.
The Trpanj turned in endless circles as it dredged the bottom. The average depth of the bay is only around eight feet. When we were heading due north, I saw dozens of oyster boats to the east. They were dredging the massive oyster reef in the middle of the bay that’s open to fishing by anyone with a license. The oysters were plentiful, and spirits were high.
Out-of-state boats are licensed to work on the 22,760 acres of [Texas’] public oyster reefs. On the Trpanj, we were working one of Misho’s leases.
There are 2,371 acres of private oyster leases in Texas. Leaseholders pay the state an annual fee for the exclusive rights to an underwater plot that had no existing oysters. The lessor must create his own oyster reef by dumping “cultch.” Pottery shards, mussel shells, and suspended branches have all been used as cultch over the centuries, but in Texas, cultch means empty oyster shells. Oyster companies with shucking operations, such as Misho’s Oyster Company, generate tons and tons of them. By dumping the empty shells, they create new oyster reefs.
Texas oysters are the sweetest in January and February, when the water is coldest. But there aren’t many oysters left on the public reefs by then. When the season opens on November first, there’s a four-hundred-boat free-for-all, and the Texas oyster reefs are quickly scraped bare. I asked Dr. Ray about the long-term prospects of the wild oysters in Galveston Bay. Oyster reefs locate them selves where freshwater and saltwater meet. Oysters themselves can tolerate fairly high salinity, Dr. Ray explained; in fact, high salinity is desirable during the mating season. But oyster predators-mainly oyster drills, starfish, and a microorganism called dermolive in saltwater. So you need a steady supply of freshwater to keep the salinity down and the pests away.”
We’re dependent on the survival of our coastal wetlands for a steady supply of freshwater. “If you want to save the oysters in Galveston Bay;• Dr. Ray said, “people in Houston need to stop building in the flood plain.”
After my ride on the Trpanj, I came back frequently to buy oysters fresh off the boat. Hanging around on the docks, I watched the boats come in and unload their oysters. And I saw a steady stream of tractor-trailers loaded with Galveston Bay oysters headed out for Florida and Maryland, among other places.
Places that were famous for their oysters one hundred years ago, like Chincoteague Bay, Maryland, and Blue Point, Long Island, aren’t the centers of oyster production anymore. But people still clamor to buy oysters with famous names, so oystermen engage in a “shell game;’ if you’ll pardon the pun.
Texas oysters make great stunt doubles. They’re sold as “Blue Points” in many oyster bars across the country. They’re also served in Washington, D.C., and Maryland oyster bars, where people assume they’re eating Chesapeake Bay oysters. It’s the public that’s deceiving itself, the oystermen will tell you.
I once asked the waiter at a Houston restaurant where the oysters came from. Hilariously, he told me the oysters I was eating were Blue Points from Long Island. I asked him to bring me the bag tag.
By federal law, oysters must be packaged with a tag stating their place of origin and date of harvest. This allows health authorities to trace the origin of the oysters in case they cause any illnesses. Oyster bars aren’t required to show the tag to customers, but if they refuse, it’s usually because they’re trying to put one over on you.
While the waiter went to get the tag, I slurped down an oyster and studied the bottom inside of the empty shell as if I were divining some hidden information. I bet my tablemate five bucks the oysters came from Galveston Bay. That was some easy money.
In March 2004, I drove down to Gilhooley’s Raw Bar, an oyster bar in the village of San Leon, to interview Misho Ivie and Dr. Sammy Ray again to wrap up the “Sex, Death & Oysters” article.
“Raw” describes the San Leon oyster shack in more ways than one. The building is made entirely of salvaged materials. When it rains, the roofleaks. The parking lot is paved with oyster shells, and there are usually a few Harleys parked in front. There’s a sign on the door that says “No Children.”
I sat down at the table where Ivie and Ray were already seated and ordered a dozen on the half shell. They came on a beer tray under a jumble of ice cubes. On top of the oysters sat a red-and-white paper container like the ones used for French fries. This one contained a half sleeve of saltines, a lemon cut into wedges, and a clear plastic cup full of cocktail sauce. Tabasco sauce and an assortment of other Louisiana pepper sauces were arrayed on the table.
I asked Dr. Ray what made the winter oysters taste so good and if there was any truth to the “never eat oysters in a month without an R” wisdom. That’s when I got my first tutorial in the life cycle of the oyster. It was the most useful information about oysters I’d ever been given.
When water temperatures get colder at the end of the summer, oysters begin storing a carbohydrate compound called glycogen, Dr. Ray explained. To humans, glycogen tastes like sugar. As the water gets colder, more glycogen accumulates, and the oysters get plumper and taste sweeter. Gulf oysters are at their absolute peak at the coldest part of the winter. No wonder oysters on the half shell have become a holiday tradition.