Exploring the Geography, Glories of Oysters More than any other food, oysters taste like the place they come from. Rowan Jacobsen, author of A Geography of Oysters, explains, describes and slurps his way through a sampling of succulent raw oysters.
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Exploring the Geography, Glories of Oysters

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Exploring the Geography, Glories of Oysters

Exploring the Geography, Glories of Oysters

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This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block.

Listen to how Rowan Jacobsen describes a temperamental mollusk: it is shamelessly bold. When it hits your tongue, it slaps you awake like the opening blast of a bugler's reveille. He's talking about a Belon oyster, also known as a European flat.

Mr. ROWAN JACOBSEN (Author, "Geography of Oysters"): I kind of think of these as the Sean Penn of oysters, like…

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. JACOBSEN: Very intense and memorable but…

BLOCK: You wouldn't want to have them every day.

Mr. JACOBSEN: Right.

BLOCK: Rowan Jacobsen talks about oysters the way a lover might recall his favorite conquests.

Mr. JACOBSEN: You have to think about the afterglow.

BLOCK: See what I mean?

Colville Bay oysters, he says, with their dusky jade shells, has an addictive lemon zest brightness. Nootka Sound oysters offer hints of muskmelon and a flavor of cold, slightly sweet raw milk - animal but good.

(Soundbite of shell scraping)

We've come to indulge in an oyster extravaganza at Hank's Oyster Bar in Alexandria, Virginia just outside Washington.

(Soundbite of shell scraping)

Rowan Jacobsen has written a guide to oyster eating called "A Geography of Oysters." He had his first oyster when he was 12. At Stormy's Bar on the Florida's Atlantic Coast, they were a dime apiece at happy hour. Now, chances are, one oyster will set you back at least $2.

More than any other food, oysters have what Jacobsen calls somewhereness - they taste like the place they come from.

(Soundbite of shell scraping)

Mr. JACOBSEN: With oysters, there are no intermediaries. It's a very direct experience. That food is exactly the same as it was when it was pulled out of the ocean. It's come to you on a plate somewhere and nobody has done anything to manipulate that food. In fact, the food was still alive until just moments before.

BLOCK: Which makes you wonder how many moments.

Mr. JACOBSEN: It was definitely alive before it got shocked. Theoretically, a beautifully skilled shock can leave the oyster - well, all right. The oyster is - it's going to the tunnel, it can see the light, but maybe hasn't quite gotten to the light yet. But the writing is on the wall. That oyster is not going to survive for long.

(Soundbite of shell scraping)

BLOCK: Hank's Oyster Bar has five kinds of oysters on the menu and they've flown in a half dozen more kinds, including some rare ones for this teaching session. All of them were plucked from their beds just the day before. These oysters, like most sold in this country, are farmed. The wild oysters fell victim long ago to overfishing and water pollution. The varieties spread before us is stunning. The West Coast Kumamotos are elegant with fine, bony white ridges running lengthwise down their cupped black shells. Others, like the Olde Salts from Virginia, are rugged, brown and knarled.

Mr. JACOBSEN: All right. Down the hatch.

Yeah, it's a good oyster. I'm picturing the Atlantic on a cold, gray November day. It's like a shipwreck oyster.

BLOCK: Hmm. That to me is sort of an oyster taste.

Mr. JACOBSEN: Right.

BLOCK: It's a really salty - it's good salty (unintelligible).

Mr. JACOBSEN: Yes. That's the taste of the oyster.

BLOCK: An oyster will filter up to 50 gallons of water a day and will take on the flavors of that water - salty, mineral, mossy, smoky or metallic.

Rowan Jacobsen turns his attention to a plate full of tiny round Olympia oysters from Puget Sound, each about the size of a 50-cent piece.

Mr. JACOBSEN: These are the world's cutest oysters. Hands down.

BLOCK: Tiny, but they pack a punch. In his book, he describes them as having a flavor redolent of morel mushrooms and butter and celery salt.


Mr. JACOBSEN: Would you buy celery salt?

BLOCK: I would buy now that you told me that. Yes. There is something - I mean, they're very metallic, but there's also something really herbal in there.

Mr. JACOBSEN: Definitely metal, yeah. It's like - it's a Bloody Mary. It's somewhere in the Bloody Mary range of flavors.

BLOCK: Now Rowan, we should point that they have brought over some quite attractive looking sauces. There's cocktail sauce and horseradish and a mignonette sauce vinegar with shallots, I think. And you're using none of them. You're a purist.

Mr. JACOBSEN: Well, you know, I've got no argument with a little nice mignonette. A cocktail sauce - James Beard referred to cocktail sauce as the red menace. And…

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. JACOBSEN: …you know, you can't argue with James Beard. Well, I think a good oyster - I like them naked.

BLOCK: And you also are not using the attractive little cocktail fork. You're just getting right in there with your teeth.

Mr. JACOBSEN: Well, here's the thing about the cocktail fork. I feel like the cocktail fork is a way of attempting to put a veneer of civilization on what's basically a pretty primitive act. So why pretend?

BLOCK: Why indeed?

We move on to some Penn Cove oysters from Washington State. Penn Coves are multi-year winners of the Most Beautiful Oyster Contest. Who knew they had a contest? Rowan Jacobsen calls them the sexiest oysters he's ever seen.

Mr. JACOBSEN: They sort of get bountiful and succulent, and they just - they have this gleam to them as they sit in their shells. They just look incredibly healthy and vivacious.

BLOCK: They are beautiful. Look at them, they're all ruffled and delicate and gorgeous.

Mr. JACOBSEN: Yeah, they tend to have these amazing scallop shells. And then inside, you - really creamy white flesh with black mantles, which is the little rim of the oyster.

BLOCK: Mm-hmm.

(Soundbite of eating)

BLOCK: Mmm, mmm. Oh, those are good. I'm going to steal your best line, Rowan. This is like kissing the sea. And it's just like kissing the sea.

Mr. JACOBSEN: Kissing the sea on the lips.

BLOCK: Of course, oysters are thought to have aphrodisiac qualities. And you talk about this in your book and you pose a question, will my - will they overexcite my libido?

Mr. JACOBSEN: Right.

BLOCK: And your answer to that is?

Mr. JACOBSEN: Well, the anecdotal evidence is strong, I have to say. But I don't think it's for any of the reasons that people tend to think aphrodisiacs work. People have tried to scramble to find a scientific explanation usually fall back on zinc because oysters are really high in zinc. And zinc is needed to generate testosterone.

But the second-best source of zinc is liver. And liver is certainly is an everybody's favorite aphrodisiac. So I think it actually has to do with the whole culture of oyster-eating. Who's eating oysters? It's a slightly risky behavior to engage in so if you look around a bar, you see other oyster eaters, you know you've got some interesting characters there. And you're feeling really good because you've got all this vitality that you've just taken from the sea and put into yourself. So you're just feeling good about life and that can manifest on all sorts of different ways.

BLOCK: So when you pose that question - will they overexcite my libido - your short answer is take your chances.

Mr. JACOBSEN: Take your chances.

BLOCK: Rowan Jacobsen's book is "A Geography of Oysters." By the way, he does recommend sticking to the R rule: avoiding oysters from warm waters from May through August, the months without an R, both for safety and for taste. And while he shuns the red menace of cocktail sauce, he does have recipes for several mignonette sauces. They're at our Web site, npr.org, along with a list of a dozen oysters you should know.

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