All About Oysters

Union MarketOn a recent visit to the wonderfully renewed Union Market here in D.C., I had the pleasure of stopping by the Rappahanock Oyster Company’s food stall. Rappahanock Oyster Company is one of the growing eco-conscious companies across the country practicing sustainable farming.

The old adage says that oysters should only be eaten in months with the letter “R.” To that I say bah humbug! But we’re now in September so it doesn’t matter. While at Union Market, I enjoyed a variety of half dozen raw oysters as well as a half dozen grilled. Delicious. A fascinating fact of the Mid-Atlantic region known primarily for its Chesapeake Blue Crab – and crab cakes and crab feasts – is that it was once known, at one time, more for its oysters.

BigOysterThe visit inspired me to read up on recipes for oysters as well as their place in culinary history. My first stop was Mark Kurlansky’s The Big Oyster : History on the Half Shell. Kurlansky, author of Cod: A Biography of the Fish That Changed the World and Salt: A World History, is one of the authors specializing in the genre known as micro-history. Kurlansky’s book focuses on the area around New York City and how for years the oyster played a pivotal role in the city’s life, culture and commerce. Kurlansky takes us on an interesting history of the “Big Apple” from the half-shell’s point of view.

Kurlansky’s book got me digging around the library’s collection to see what other books we had on oysters. Two other titles peaked my interest and, while not necessarily new, they each provide a window to the bivalve that expands the oyster’s story globally outward.
Georgraphy of Oysters
The first is Rowan Jacobsen’s A Geography of Oysters: The Connoisseur’s Guide to Oyster Eating in North America. Jacobsen writes a love letter to the oyster and takes us on a geographical tour around North America pointing out the multiple varieties and the subtleties of each region. This is an “Oyster 101” that touches on the hows, whats and whos of oysters.

Jacobsen even covers how to shuck and prepare oysters. Book bonus: “The best oyster bars and oyster festivals” toward the end of the book.
Sex, Death Oysters
The second is Robb Walsh’s Sex, Death & Oysters: A Half-Shell Lover’s World Tour. Walsh kicks it up and out a notch by traveling not just around the North America’s oyster rich regions, but also Canada, Ireland, England and France. Walsh explores the science of harvesting oysters and touches a bit on the culinary history of the mollusk.

Like Jacobsen’s volume, Walsh includes recipes and a notable appendix of oyster bars throughout the United States and Canada. Very handy.

To read more about oysters, oyster fisheries or sustainable farming visit and explore the library’s catalog. You’re bound to find a pearl or two in the collection.

-- S. McDermott