Wild Side Column: Oysters are cool and delicious
After spending some time in Cedar Key, Florida I began to realize that this place is here in large part because of oysters. Dr. Peter Frederick, Research Professor of the University of Florida Department of Wildlife Ecology and Conservation says that oysters are very cool. Not only are they considered aphrodisiacs, they construct navigation hazards.
The Big Bend area of the Gulf Coast of Florida is a low-energy shallow seacoast with little sediment inflow and no barrier islands. Oysters are ecosystem engineers that build reefs or "bio-berms" parallel to the coast. Over the last several thousand years, oysters have grown an elaborate pattern of reefs along the Big Bend coast that can be seen from outer space.
Native Americans lived along the Gulf Coast of Florida for thousands of years, eating oysters, whelks, clams, fish, birds and deer. One of the highest points on Way Key in the City of Cedar Key is a Native American shell burial mound right next to the Community Center. Old oyster, whelk and clam shells and pottery shards are under-foot in many places around Cedar Key. Six miles north, in the Lower Suwannee National Wildlife Refuge, is Shell Mound, the largest prehistoric shell midden on the central Gulf Coast covering five acres and rising 28 feet above sea level. Those people must have really liked to eat oysters!
The Eastern Oyster (Crassostrea virginica) is found from the Yucatan Peninsula in Mexico to the St. Lawrence River in Canada. They grow quickly in warm shallow estuaries and can reach edible size in less than two years. Despite their fecundity and rapid growth, oysters are in trouble throughout their range due to reduced freshwater inflow from rivers, dredging, coastal development and nutrient loading.
Water quality around here is still good with extensive coastal zone areas protected from development and municipal waste treatment that minimizes nutrient loading from the City of Cedar Key. Wild oysters are harvested commercially and some are farm-raised in the shellfish lease areas in the shallow Gulf north and south of Cedar Key.
Rick Cook, a friendly Cedar Key seafood vendor, showed me how to shuck oysters. Using a short stout knife, you insert the point of the knife into the joint between the cup and lid parts of the oyster shell and twist. It took me quite a few oysters and some banged-up fingers on my left hand before I got the hang of it.
Not everyone likes raw oysters but I enjoy slurping them down with a bit of lemon juice or hot sauce. Cedar Key oysters are famously good. They taste slightly salty, clean and fresh like the sea. For those who would prefer their oysters cooked, you can have them fried on bread in a southern po-boy sandwich, in seafood gumbo or in oyster stew.
Our favorite ways to cook oysters are variations on Oysters Rockefeller, broiled on the half-shell. We place shucked oysters face up on a pan, add some finely chopped parsley, cilantro, garlic and shallots in olive oil on top with a bit of (make America grate again) parmesan or asiago cheese. Broil for about 7 minutes, let them cool a bit and enjoy with white wine. Then the world is your oyster.
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