Why Gulf Oysters Are Never Named By Their Home Bays

Mar 04, 2011

Generally, oysters from Texas to Alabama are sold simply as Gulf oysters, as if the ninth-largest body of water on Earth had no diversity worth mentioning, no bays with individual character. While researching my forthcoming book Shadows on the Gulf: A Journey through Our Last Great Wetland, I got the chance to sit down with Al Sunseri, proprietor of P&J Oysters in New Orleans’ French Quarter, and ask him why.

“Let me tell you something,” he said. “We did name oysters for where they come from. We did, too. And that all changed.” There were always oyster grounds on both sides of the Mississippi River below New Orleans, Al explained. The marshes on the east side were fresher, and those on the west side were saltier. The east side made good predator-free nursery grounds for baby oysters, and the west side was good for “salting up” the oysters. “You’d take oysters from the public grounds on the east side of the river and transport them through Empire Locks to your leases on the west side. That’s how you did it.”

And in those west-side bays, the oysters got incredibly delicious. “If you could see what it used to be like,” Al said, shaking his head. He wasn’t nostalgic; he’s too hard-nosed a businessman for that. He just had the well-weathered disgust of having had a front-row seat to watch the state kill its golden goose. “Something about the Plaquemines–Jefferson Parish area is so rich. You had all that marsh going out there. Beautiful oysters—the sweetest, saltiest oysters. We called ’em candy oysters. They had all these different flavors. Some had a woody flavor. Some had a grassy taste. They all had that firm, thick eye, sometimes as big as half of the oyster, because they were so healthy.” The eye is the muscle the oyster uses to close its shell. It’s the same muscle we eat in a scallop, and it’s responsible for a lot of an oyster’s sweetness and texture. A “big-eyed” oyster is like a molluscan weightlifter. “A number of different areas on the west side of the river produced that kind of oyster: Grand Bayou, Bayou Cook, Lake Washington, Lake Grande Ecaille. Our company made its name off of them. Our card had those bays on it. People asked for those oysters by name. Every so often, when conditions were right, you’d get nice oysters on the east side of the river, with these beautiful golden shells and nice big eyes, but only certain times of the year. It wasn’t like on the west side.”

With their long-standing relationships with different growers, P&J would carefully buy from different areas at different times of year, harvesting the oysters when they were at their peak. “In years gone by, you knew which areas you’d be buying from certain times of the year, and you’d plan that way. So you’d have oysters from Caminada Bay and Bayou Cook at a certain time, and then at another time you might have some Lake Washington and Basin Bois and Bay Batiste oysters. That’s how it was. You’d move around.”

Then Railway Express, which shipped P&J’s oysters across the country, went under, and the big brokers and trucking companies moved in. And they weren’t interested in where the oysters were from. “These food service people didn’t care what was in the container. They just put a number on it. When you have a trailer truck of oysters, that’s four hundred sacks. You might have oysters from four, five, six different fishermen. And they’re all being sold as one lot. That broker’s not selling Bayou Cook oysters, because he’s selling ten, fifteen truckloads of oysters a day, piling the good ones with the bad. He’s selling widgets. So instead of people thinking about Bayou Cook, Grand Bayou, Grand Lake oysters, they started saying Louisiana oysters. Gulf oysters.”

Thus began the practice of selling almost tasteless oysters harvested directly from the public grounds on the east side. “No one sold directly from the public grounds. We always moved them to places like Bayou Cook and Grand Bayou to fatten up. And it changed.”

Not only that, but the places themselves changed. Thanks to the levees on the Mississippi River and the 10,000 miles of canals dug by the oil industry, a lot of those Louisiana oyster bays no longer exist. You can find the whole story in my book, due out in April.

In the meantime, there are signs that a terroir revival is underway in the Gulf. Well, in Texas, anyway. For the scoop on that, see my next post.

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