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March 25, 2004

Life On the Half-Shell

By Jim Dallas

Robb Walsh of the Houston Press reminds me this week why we Galvestonians take pride in our oysters, as well as why I worry about Californians generally and have outright disdain for some Naderites specifically:

And who would eat oysters that come out of that water?" the San Franciscan continues. Suddenly, I feel my jaw muscles tighten. Newly informed about Texas oysters, I feel a strange need to defend them.

"I would," I say. "But actually, the oysters don't come from the Gulf, they come from Galveston Bay. In fact, it's one of the last great oyster reefs in America. And the oysters are fabulous this year."

"Where is Galveston Bay?" the lady from San Francisco wants to know.

"It's between Kemah and San Leon on the west and Anahuac on the east," I say, but she has no idea where I'm talking about. "You know where the ships enter the Houston Ship Channel?" I ask.

"Oh, gross," says a vegetarian woman who's listening in on the edge of the conversation. "So you think all those chemicals spewing out of the oil tankers give the oysters a special flavor?" Cornered now by skeptics, I feel the adrenaline beginning to flow.

I have a Texas Parks and Wildlife oyster map out in my car that shows how big the bay really is and how far the oyster reefs are from the pollution. I consider going out to get it.

"What I resent is that I can't get good oysters in Houston because they have so many cheap ones here," the San Franciscan says. "The Gulf oysters are big and tough. I don't want to chew on an oyster. I would never eat an oyster any bigger than this," she says, making a silver dollar-sized circle with her fingers. "I like blue points and Kumamoto oysters."

"How much do they cost?" I ask.

"I think the last time I had them, it was like $8.95 for three…"

"I like cultivated oysters, too," I admit. "They're delicious. But three little bitty oysters for $9? You live in the last place in America where you can get a dozen oysters for a couple of bucks -- and you want to import $36-a-dozen cultivated oysters from California?"

"That's right," she says.

"You're an oyster snob," I say.

"Okay," she says. "I have no problem with that."

Silly, blasphemous woman. I bet she was one of those New York Times reading, Volvo-driving hippies for Dean.

Meanwhile, the Chicken Little folks are telling us that Galveston Bay Oysters could kill us all at any minute. Here's what Robb Walsh says about that:

...[t]he group released a report, "Death on the Half Shell," that blamed government inaction for the more than 135 deaths from contaminated oysters since 1989.

So why would anybody in their right mind keep eating Gulf Coast oysters after a warning like that? Well, it helps to remember that Michael Jacobson, the head of the Center for Science in the Public Interest, has also spoken out against beer, coffee, Mexican food and buttered popcorn. The teetotaling vegetarian microbiologist, who once worked with Ralph Nader, also favors the enactment of the "Twinkie Tax," a special added tax on unhealthy food, and reportedly has said that instead of neighborhood taverns, "They should develop an alternative for people to socialize -- a real fun coffeehouse. Maybe a carrot-juice house."

It's not very difficult to figure out why Jacobson should be joined in his condemnation of Gulf Coast seafood by the New England and Pacific Northwest seafood industries. If they can scare people out of eating cheap native Gulf Coast oysters, they stand to sell a lot more of their expensive farm-raised ones.

Normally, I would wince at Walsh using the term "teetotaling vegetarian" in approximately the same way that folks used to use the term "godless communist." But when you diss our seafood, I guess I lose sympathy.

And the bacteria threat is a crock, anyway, with the chance of dying from an oyster something like one in a million. I'm more concerned about the Chevy Corvair.

Besides, if you're concerned about oyster bacteria, just do what I do - eat them grilled or deep-fried (during the summer; during the winter raw oysters are almost bacteria-free and taste better, anyway).

And remember, only native Gulf Coast oysters are so cheap and plentiful that you can afford to deep-fry them without feeling like your bastardizing a delicacy.

Posted by Jim Dallas at March 25, 2004 04:39 PM | TrackBack


When I was a boy (50 years ago), we used to drive down to Bolivar Point and at low tide, walk out onto the oysters reefs and dig oysters. We'd go home with half a dozen tow sacks or more, filled with oysters. What a feast we would have when we got home to southeast Texas. The last time I was there, twenty years ago, there was so much oil crap on the beaches you couldn't walk a dozen yards without stepping in it. And that oil wasn't natural seepage, either.

You go ahead, but I won't eat any oysters from the Gulf of Mexico anyway except fried (maybe grilled, maybe). Sorry, bud, but there's not one state that borders the Gulf that has shown any respect for the environment. Not one. Let me say that again for emphasis: not one. STill you think Galveston Bay is big enough that not all of it is polluted by the Houston ship channel.

You're more of an optimist than I, but then again, you said you ate them fried or grilled, right?

Posted by: r. Houston Bridges at March 25, 2004 09:26 PM

Yes, but primarily because I don't like squishy foods.

I really hate jello salad, for example, and raw oyster reminds me of jello salad.

Posted by: Jim D at March 25, 2004 09:47 PM

Interesting too that the native Northwest Pacific oysters were nearly wiped out by disease. In mid-last-century outside stocks had to be introduced to shore up the flagging oyster industry in the NW. Nowadays virtually all commercial oysters originating from the west coast are actually Pacific Giant Oysters (native to Japan and SW of there) and Kumamoto Oysters (dubiously different species from the Giant Oysters, they are probably only a dwarf population of the same), native species. In any case the west coast has little to brag about. By the way, Pacific Giant Oysters are banned from live import into Texas waters lest they escape and decimate our native oysters. An experimental release in Chesapeake Bay also introduced pathogens which wiped out their native stocks.

Posted by: tony gallucci at March 26, 2004 01:05 PM
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