What Is Oyster Culture?
Starting three weeks of oyster consideration.
I started this year with an exciting commission for a reported essay on the role of oysters in my own life and in the ecologies of the islands where I’ve lived, the significance of their “merroir,” and the reasons so many of us tattoo them onto our bodies. Oysters as an embodied experience of geography, as symbol of an origin by the sea.
But it was to be a long piece for not a lot of money, car rentals were too expensive to justify, no one was replying to my interview requests, and the editor who had taken the piece on left their position. It just wasn’t coalescing, and I’ve learned in my seven years of freelancing that it’s best to step away from things when nothing is working rather than force myself to write something I wouldn’t be proud of.
The piece was going to be called, at least in my suggestions, “Possibilities for Oyster Culture,” after a 1950 report by the U.S. Department of Interior on oysters in Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands. It was interesting to me to talk to people about the oysters I’d eaten in Boquerón, on the west coast—small, from the mangroves, referred to as ostiones rather than ostras, beautiful salinity and a fresh, clean mouthfeel—and hear them regarded as a fluke of local cuisine, not something very significant. That’s what the 1950 report says, too, more or less, and the literature on fishing as a job in Puerto Rico tends to regard it as what we’d now call a side hustle: a bit of subsistence, a bit of money, nothing to live on. Restaurants tend to import oysters of a larger size; local seafood on menus is usually one whole stunner of a fish or a crudo. Seafood is essential, available, and sustainable, but its place in the culinary culture isn’t prime despite the location. I think that’s changing, though.
To me, of course, there is nothing insignificant about oysters. They are crucial to ecosystems, and such a beauty to enjoy—the primality of it continues to feel so comforting to me. My mom even uses shells to create decor and candles. (I wrote in 2018 about what spurred me to eat bivalves.) While out to brunch with my sister a couple of months ago, I said to her that it’s like something in the depths of my animal humanity needs to eat raw things out of shells. Some sort of ancestral power. She looked at me like I’m nuts, which is what she usually does. How did I get saddled with this weirdo for a big sister? But it’s true. Slurping out of shells, tasting the sea along with it: This continues to feel necessary to me.
What I wanted to consider in this piece was the question of how when production of a foodstuff doesn’t reach the level of “industry,” it becomes regarded as more or less nonexistent—or at least insignificant. The cool waters of Long Island are, of course, well suited to oyster cultivation. In Puerto Rico, oysters, ostiones, persist in this corner, where there is evidence they likely have been consumed for centuries.
When you go to Boquerón to eat oysters, it’s from the street carts of the type that used to populate Manhattan. The businesses tend to also sell pinchos, alcapurria, and clams (I haven’t done too much digging into the clams), and this is more or less the extent of local oyster culture. The kiosks of Piñones on the north shore have oysters, but they’re bigger and less flavorful.
I eat oysters whenever I see them on a menu, though, and they’re usually from Canada when they’re served on a bed of pebble ice with tiny cups of mignonette. I also wonder what the cultural meaning of the oyster is now that it is ubiquitous again, both in fancier places and in the street carts of yore. I prefer eating them standing up on the street than sitting down in a restaurant; I prefer them immediate. There is a real dichotomy to dig into about seafood generally as something “fancy” and seafood as something accessible, immediate—of subsistence. (There is a lot to dig into about how much longer we will have seafood: “Areas in the Tropics are predicted to see declines of up to 40% in potential seafood catch by 2050.”)
How do you perceive oysters? How do you perceive seafood in general? Does it have to do with where you grew up? We ate it raw or battered and deep-fried. I grew up loving the hell out of fried clam strips from Spicy’s or Nancy’s Crab Shack. I have never eaten a frozen fish stick, though. Seafood was supposed to be fresh, immediate. Usually eaten right by a body of water. To live landlocked is an existence I can’t fathom. To be near water is essential to who I am, to how I interpret the world. Is this oyster culture?
The 1950 report says these local oysters were usually stored in sea water and brought to San Juan for consumption, with 50,000 oysters culled from the mangroves with machetes and sold in 1940. That has changed, with them now staying local. This is oyster culture: eating them where they are, with pique. It’s not about possibility; it’s about what is.
I’ll be using research from the piece that I was supposed to write in the newsletter for a couple of weeks, going back to oyster literature (to consider it) and publishing an interview with Rob Rubba, whose restaurant in D.C., Oyster Oyster, is vegetarian and farm-to-table, with oysters, and I wanted to talk about why this is such a coherent way to eat for people in certain regions who are invested in local food systems.
This Wednesday’s podcast will be the last of the season, and it’s a fantastic conversation with Millicent Souris, a writer and chef who’s now managing a large food pantry and soup kitchen in Brooklyn. Subscribe on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or adjust your settings to receive an email when it’s out.
Friday’s From the Kitchen for paid subscribers will be a discussion thread about what people are excited to eat depending on their impending weather changes, plus a recipe from my husband for a mezcal margarita with a twist I adore. See the recipe index for all past recipes available to paid subscribers.
Programming note: I’ll be taking next week off from publishing. I’ll be back on June 6 with the next oyster installment.
My letter from the editor for Prism’s “The Meat Issue” project. Sign up to keep getting good essays and insights from writers like Jenny Dorsey, Clarissa Wei, Esther Tseng, and more. It’s for anyone reconsidering their relationship to meat.
I started the new edition of Cookie Mueller’s Walking Through Clear Water in a Pool Painted Black and boy is it fucking readable! A cinematic romp! Pure voice! I had bought it because I’m pretty indiscriminate when it comes to whatever Semiotext(e) puts out and picked it up because I’d been thumbing once again through Gary Indiana’s Vile Days and in the introduction he mentions her saying she wasn’t afraid to die because the future would be all computers anyway. I was like, Oh, I gotta open her book up right now.
I have been reading The Dean & DeLuca Cookbook from 1996 like it’s a juicy novel and so I made a giant salad of romaine lettuce, fried chickpeas, seared portobello, and sourdough croutons with balsamic reduction. I love ’90s cuisine!!! I was also inspired by Gun Street to make a vegetarian shawarma and brownies for a happy Friday. A great newsletter to subscribe to for cooking inspiration!
“Digging” into clams 😁. Also just randomly pulled down my 1996 D&D cookbook yesterday and it is a TOME. Great essay as usual, thanks!
omg I was holding off on reading this because I wanted to read the trifecta all together, and so I didn't see that you'd recommended me (I was wondering where the wash of new subscribers came from)! Thank you!
And thank you for the nostalgia prompt... I am so lucky to have grown up in BC where seafood is abundant and varied. I recall eating smoked oysters at a party my parents had when I was quite young, maybe 7, and loving them, to the delight of the adults. Fish and chips was the go-to when we were young (the kiosk at the no-longer-operating ferry terminal in my hometown had THE best stuff) but we also did a lot of salmon; Indigenous fisherman catch it and sell it out of coolers in the back of their trucks during salmon season, so it was always fresh and a great deal. I also remember when we would buy spot prawns not only because they were local and delicious, but because they were actually CHEAPER than other prawns (not so anymore).