If you’re not from around here and were wondering about the local seafood I’d like to suggest you try the humble oyster. Alabama is blessed with large oyster beds and a relatively mild winter climate compared to the north. For those of you that like trivia a fresh shucked oyster is the only animal in North America that is traditionally eaten alive. If you listen closely you can hear it yell, “Help me!!” as you swallow it ;-).In the past the common people have looked upon the oyster as an important food source and the elite considered it a delicacy. Though, there are other reasons that they’re prized. Oysters have, apparently, always been linked with love. Aphrodite, the Greek goddess of love, sprang from the sea on an oyster shell and bore Eros, thus the word “aphrodisiac” was born. In later centuries, the great lover Casanova was said to start a meal by eating a gross of oysters to ready him for his night’s pleasures.In the fossil record oysters appeared during the Triassic period about 200 million years ago and have been an important food source for humans since the new Stone Age. The Chinese have raised oysters in ponds for centuries. In 320 B.C. Aristotle speculated in his writing the “Historia Animalium” that oysters were spontaneously generated from slime. At that time the Greeks served them with wine, and the Romans loved then so much that they sent thousands of slaves north to the English Channel to collect them. Some Roman emperors were said to pay for them, ounce for ounce, in gold.The oyster we have in Alabama is the eastern oyster (Crassostrea virginica). They’re filter feeders and consume algae and other water borne foods by filtering water at a rate of up to five liters per hour. When the oyster beds were in their natural untouched state scientists believe that Mobile Bay’s oyster population served as a natural water filtering system that turned over the volume of the bay every few days.Alabama’s oysters usually live in water between eight and 25 feet. Oysters start spawning in the spring when the water temperature rises above a certain level and again in the early fall when it falls below that point. This triggers a chain reaction of spawning, which clouds the water with hundreds of millions of eggs and sperm.Their free-swimming larvae are called spat, which settle on any hard substrate, but prefer oyster shells. Oysters are hermaphrodites, which change sex when there isn’t enough of the opposite sex around to provide for enough spawn. Oysters mature at an early age (one year). A single female oyster produces 10 to 100 million eggs annually. Over time, as the oysters live and die their shells form reefs with many nooks and crannies that have over fifty times the surface area of flat bottom. These oyster reefs provide habitat for a wide range of animals like worms, snails, juvenile crabs and fish.A common rule of thumb has been to eat oysters only in months that have an “R” in their name. These “R” months are during cold weather which aided in preventing spoilage. With refrigeration the danger of decay and food poisoning has been all but eliminated and oysters are served during all months to the year. In “non-R” months oysters tend to be on the flaccid side because they have spent all their stored energy on spawning.
Think Global – Act Local!