Seasonality, in today’s world, is a term most often associated with sports. Despite the growing ‘vore movement, most Americans would tell you that September is the beginning of Football Season. Yet, 150 years ago, New Yorkers eagerly greeted the arrival of September, the first of a series of eight months having an ‘R’ in it, as the beginning of Oyster Season.
Only then, was it safe to consume New York’s most precious and local product. Sidewalk vendors shucked them, Delmonico’s plated them, Old Walt Whitman loved them, and most of the population consumed them in their home as well as in restaurants.
Seventy-five years ago, the NY Times featured FDR being served his first plate of September oysters in a top-of-the-fold photo. But now, even the New York Oyster Lovers Club, which visited my oyster farm in July, yes July, was curious about the reasons behind the admonition against eating oysters in an ‘R’-less month.
Like most aphorisms, there’s a lot of truth behind it. As any child can quickly surmise (a necessary feature of any good old saying), the non-’R’ months are May, June, July and August – when the air and the water are warmest.
Water temperature is everything to the brainless oyster. The highlight of their existence, not unlike our own, is when they spawn, which occurs at a water temperature of 70 degrees Fahrenheit. In the New York area, that’s roughly mid-July. At that time, half the oyster’s body mass is his or her gonad. Once they expel that stuff, their meats are very thin. So one reason to avoid a warm water oyster is that there’s less bivalve for the buck. It takes them a good six weeks to fatten back up, right at the beginning of ‘R’ season.
Secondly, unmentioned by most growers, is the real concern of vibrio cholera. (The name speaks for itself.) That bacteria blooms when water temperature rises above 80. Although New York waters do not get that hot, there is the risk, during shipping and handling, that the oyster could warm up. So the old saying doubly protects the oyster eater: guides her to a better product and safeguards him against a nasty night.
Most Americans, like the members of the Oyster Lovers Club, think a summer trip to the shore is an excellent time to sample the local shellfish. It’s hot, the water’s refreshing, so the product of the sea should be made available to them. I have even read lesser chefs quoted as saying the chilled, summer oyster is one of the treats of the season. I agree that the East End of Long Island is a wonderful place in the summer, perhaps the best in the country. The fish are superb, the corn, beans, tomatoes, berries perfect – and the shellfish, well, they’re not quite ready.
Granted, science and technology have intervened to dilute the mandate against eating oysters in the summer. Refrigeration is much better, highways span the country, and airports regularly supply the desert with everything from ostrich to uni to oysters. So the risk of an encounter with vibrio is indeed lessened. But, having hauled bags of shellfish around the steaming streets of Manhattan for a decade, I gave up the summer trade years nine ago. (Notice how the Big Board at Grand Central fills up with Maine, Washington and Canadian oysters.)
Each bag of oysters I sell has my name and phone number affixed to it. (And any New Yorker may demand to see that tag, which has the harvest and shipping dates, when they order raw shellfish.) If anyone gets sick, I could be shut down. Last August, one of New York’s finest chefs rang me up and wanted to know what the water temperature was in my creek. 77, I told him and wanted to know why. Someone had encountered a confirmed case of vibrio at his restaurant. Chef, that’s why I don’t sell you any oysters in July and August. And that is from one of the most spotless kitchens I have ever seen. Even a stray odor will drive that particular chef into a sniffing frenzy worthy of Clouseau.
Chromosome jiggering has also undercut the Old Saying. Hatcheries can now produce triploid oysters, a three-chromosomed mule of phylum molluska, that does not produce egg and sperm, does not breed, and thus, remains plump all summer. Personally, I do not monitor the tides, the winds, the seasons and the storms to attempt to alter Nature’s rhythms by growing something that mocks the most primal act of mitosis. The thin and watery oyster that I don’t sell in the summer, will be a prime hunk of meat in just a few months. Well worth the wait.
September, my oyster lovers, is just the beginning of our affair. Once finished with its duty to procreate, the premium northern oyster begins to prepare for winter. It puts on fat, gorging on the still warm bays filled with algae – that one-celled plantimal alive since the miasma of creation, that eternal organism that feeds my animals and stokes them full of omega 3 fatty acids. A big fat oyster encased in luminous mother of pearl is the ultimate gift from the sea. In our waters, oysters feed until mid-December.
Cultures have known this for millennium. Most people, including me, think the end of the year is the best time to eat oysters; and, oddly enough, there are many Christmas and New Year’s feasts that feature The Pearl of the Table. The Italians include the oyster in their Feast of the Seven Fishes. The kings of the oyster world, the French, dine extensively on oysters for their Christmas Eve celebration. (Their lusty bon vivant, The Sun King, downed 2 dozen for breakfast daily, which, I assure you, is the best damned breakfast you’ll ever eat.)
What Wall Street bonus party does not feature mountains of oysters and buckets of champagne? Losers and cheapskates!
Come January, when the nor’easters and blizzards stack up like Beamers and Benzes on the LIE, the bays turn an icy, aquamarine blue. The algae has died off. The oysters begin, very slowly, to consume their fat. The baymen fire up their skiffs, break through the ice, and haul the clear, crisp, briny animals into the city. As you continue to enjoy them in February, March and April, they are getting ever so slightly thinner.
Then in May, the first R-less month, the oceans change from gemstone blue to a duller gray green. The algae and the planet’s oceans are blooming. The oysters begin to eat and build sex glands. By June, they have stripped down to halter tops and hot pants. Some people actually prefer this engorged animal, brimming with glycogen.
But once that threshold of water temperature is reached, that magical 70 degrees, they let loose in an orgy of procreation, each female releasing 50,000,000 eggs and the males 1,000,000,000 sperm. The clams, the whelks, the scallops, the barnacles, the jingle shells are all doing it. You know that sticky feeling you like to rinse off after having swam in the bay on a mid summer day? Well, it’s not salt.
Do yourself and the oyster a favor: keep your lips off them for a couple of months, then on September First, start slurping big time. Take a bushel to a tailgate party. Having a live animal in your gut is a grand experience. Give the old lady … a kiss.
And if Mayor Mike is reading, which I’m pretty sure he is, how about telling the LIRR to think of making money instead of raising tolls by carrying boxed oysters into Penn. Build a farmers’ market there – the baymen, the wineries, and the farmers don’t want to drive in, pollute the air, and pay the tolls and those lousy orange NYSUCKS souvenirs your boys shove under our wipers.