Oy! They may not look sexy, but get fresh with them and these briny bivalves are a taste bud turn-on

Oysters have issues with sexual orientation. Most of them are born male. At a year old, many choose to become female. Odds are they would remain female, but no, the female oyster can revert to masculinity after spawning. Some varieties even fertilize themselves. Scientists, such as Carnegie Museum of Natural History mollusk section head Dr. Tim Pearce, call oysters sequential hermaphrodites, which just means they swing both ways.

Then there's the oyster's reputation for being an aphrodisiac, inspiring romance in you and me. Sorry, Charlie, but you'll have to shuck that myth. There's no real evidence for any libido-raising qualities in oysters. If anything, the oyster's shape and slippery texture are what make it sensuous.

And flavor? Think briny, metallic, buttery, sweet and salty to start. Oysters, which are filter-feeders, take on the essence of the water in which they live and the food -- microalgae -- they feed on. They pick up the flavors of their varied environments. That's why each variety is named after the neighborhood where it is harvested; for example, Wellfleet, Bluepoint, Chincoteague, Penn Cove and Malpeque.

Good for you

Men, maybe there is something to this aphrodisiac notion after all. Casanova ate up to 60 oysters a day. In truth, it wasn't about elevating his libido, but it might just have been all about the zinc. Oysters are off the charts in zinc, making them a the ideal food to promote prostate health. They are also the richest animal source of vitamins and minerals, a great source of cholesterol-reducing omega-3 fatty acids, and they are high in potassium. Three small oysters contain about 70 calories and about 2.5 milligrams of fat. They are also a superior source of protein for low-carb diets.


Oysters have been the darlings of romantics and gourmands ever since somebody had the muscle to open one and the nerve to eat it. Pretty does not describe them. While they are often reserved for celebrations and holidays, that needn't be. Because they are moderately priced, readily available, healthful, safe and possibly even more delicious as a result of farm-raising, oysters earn a place on the weekday table. They will be coming into local markets as we get closer to the holidays.

Get rrr-ready to eat oysters

What about the myth of eating oysters only in the R months? It's a quirk of the calendar that the other months are May through August, usually the warmest time of the year in the Northern Hemisphere. There is nothing wrong with the oysters themselves. But there are five good reasons why oysters disappear from summer menus.

  • It's a holdover from the days before refrigeration, when oysters couldn't be shipped very far without spoiling. A spoiled oyster is bad news.
  • In warm waters, there is a greater risk of pathogenic bacteria and algae. Eating a raw oyster from possibly polluted water is a health risk. Local Pittsburgh sources do not handle oysters from warmer waters such as the Gulf of Mexico.
  • Oysters spawn during the warmest part of the year. It makes good conservation sense not to harvest them while they are occupied. Definitely a time to hang a "Do Not Disturb" sign on the oyster beds.
  • In European oysters, the eggs are fertilized and develop inside the parent's shell. If you eat a "pregnant" oyster at this time, the tiny shells of the developing babies (called spat) can make it gritty and unpleasant. American species develop in a more conventional manner, so grittiness usually is not a problem.
  • Because spawning enervates them, oysters can be mushy and watery -- "spawny" -- instead of plump and firm. Why bother?

Some aquaculture producers, however, cultivate "triploids," a sort of capon oyster, which never spawns, but keeps growing fat and firm all year round. Other producers keep their oysters in deeper, colder water during the summer, so it is possible to find non-spawny oysters in the R months.

Bottom line: Buy only from established suppliers. They, in turn, buy only shellfish harvested from regularly inspected waters. Farm-raised oysters are safe to eat because the producers test the quality of their water continually.

Whether you call them "arsters," "ersters" or "osters," buy them fresh, keep them cold and damp and eat them on the day of purchase.

Buying and storing

A good rule of thumb is six oysters per person as an appetizer, and one to two dozen as a main course. The two American species, Eastern and Pacific, are best eaten raw when they are 2 to 4 inches in length. Any bigger and they are just too much of a mouthful.

Some consistently good local places to get oysters

  • Penn Avenue Fish Co., 2208 Penn Ave., Strip District. (412-434-7200). Will shuck to order, and will take large special orders. Ask for Ronald Neumeyer or Henry Dewey.
  • Whole Foods Market, 5880 Centre Ave., East Liberty (412-441-7960). Available usually on the weekends. Will shuck to order.
  • McCormick & Schmick's, 2667 Sidney St., SouthSide Works (412-432-3260). Recent selection included: Tatamagouche and Evening Cove (Canada); Effingham, Nootka Sound and Paradise Cove (British Columbia) and Saddlerock (Connecticut).
  • Original Fish Market, 1001 Liberty Ave., Westin Convention Center Hotel (412-227-3657 or 412-281-2239). Recent selection included: Watch Hill (Rhode Island), Fanny Bay (British Columbia), Kumomoto (Mexico) and Blue Point (New York).
  • Mitchell's Fish Market, Galleria, Mt. Lebanon (412-571-3474). Recent selection included: Chesapeake (Virginia), Malpeque (Prince Edward Island) and Gerrish Island (Maine).

-- Marlene Parrish

Always buy oysters from a reputable fish monger. He or she will pick out shells that are tightly closed. And instead of asking what kind to buy, ask what is available, because there are hundreds of varieties, each with distinctive characteristics. If you can get some seaweed to garnish the platter, do so.

Purchased in the shell, oysters are alive, and they need air. They should be packed with ice for the trip from the store. If they are in a plastic bag, open it as soon as you get home. Place the oysters cup-side (the deeper half of the shell) down on ice, never in water. Cover with damp towels to keep them from drying out.

Learn to open them at home (see above). Just shucked oysters should be plump and fresh-smelling. The liquor should be clear and free of shell fragments. The liquid is always used, whether swallowed with the oyster or added to a dish.

Feeding the masses

Oysters used to be a poor man's food. They were so plentiful and easy to harvest that entire villages were built around this source of food. In the mid 19th century, the peddlers' carts that traveled from town to town always had a sloshing pail of shucked oysters hanging from a pole hooked over the back of the cart.

A cheap source of protein, oysters were put into almost everything. Turkeys were stuffed with them, and steaks, too. Oysters were tossed into soups and stews, but most often, they were tossed down the hatch, raw.

America was quite oyster-mad in the late 1800s. Annual consumption was around 66 oysters per person, with several dozen making a light appetizer. Modest oyster cellars evolved into oyster houses and soon, thanks to advances in cold storage and transportation, every city had one. Pittsburgh's Original Oyster House in Market Square dates to 1870.

The mother of them all was New York City's Grand Central Oyster Bar and Restaurant in Grand Central Terminal, which opened in 1913. Not much has changed. Today, the oyster bar can have as many as 40 varieties, and, according to a spokesperson, the restaurant serves five million oysters a year raw, in roasts and in chowders. A local math buff figures that's roughly 18,000 per 10-hour day in a five-and-a-half day week.

That's a lot of oysters.

Marlene Parrish can be reached at mparrish@post-gazette.com or 412-481-1620. First Published October 25, 2007 4:00 AM


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