Thursday, April 22, 2004
Government Calls for Abstinence but Temptation Is Overpowering
By ROGER M. GRACE
Oysters, a food enjoyed in ancient times and popular in America since colonial days, are still on menus. What’s ironic is that, despite the health-consciousness of these times, oysters are most often consumed raw—though there are health warnings against eating them that way—and are decreasingly popular in cooked dishes, which present no known perils.
Since 1995, the Federal Drug Administration has cautioned that there’s the risk of “vibrio vulnificus infection” from raw oysters. “Although this bacterium is not a danger to most healthy people,” the FDA notes, “40 percent of infections with Vibrio vulnificus are fatal.”
“The bacterium occurs naturally, not as a result of pollution, so eating oysters from reputable sources does not offer protection. Proper cooking is necessary to completely kill Vibrio vulnificus and eliminate its threat.”
Yet, the temptation of a fresh raw oyster surely rivals that of an apple in the Garden of Eden. I admit it: I’m an oyster-a-holic.
A few decades ago, the only oysters commonly available in Los Angeles were “Pacific oysters,” so designated with no further description. There were blue point oysters on the East Coast, Pacific oysters on the West Coast, gulf oysters in Louisiana and surrounding states. My grandfather, who lived in North Dakota, would surely not have had access to fresh oysters ever, in his part of the country.
Pacific oysters were too bland to eat without cocktail sauce (or, as an alternative, with vinegar). That’s changed, decidedly for the better. Now on menus are oysters far too flavorful to insult by subjecting them to condiments. That’s thanks to improved cold-packing techniques and the frequency of jet flights.
A half dozen or so oysters from wide ranging points on the globe are available on any given day at McCormick & Schmick’s (in downtown L.A., Beverly Hills, Pasadena, El Segundo and Irvine, as well points in Northern California and other states).
You’ll find oysters there from the East Coast of the United States, from Canada (Fanny Bays from British Columbia on the west coast, Malpeques from Prince Edward Islands in the east), and from below the Equador. All have distinctive tastes, and are far too seductive to the taste buds for heed to be paid to warnings from the FDA.
When it comes to raw oysters, well, this is not a subject of nostalgia. There were no “good old days” when a greater variety and quality of oysters were available.
The first advancement I recall from “standard” Pacific oysters was the kumamoto, a small but plump and flavorful oyster available in Little Tokyo in the early 1980s. It had been introduced in the Pacific Northwest 30 years earlier but was not extensively marketed until a marine biologist, Bill Marinelli, began a promotional effort.
Jeff Daniels, now president of Marinelli Shellfish in Seattle, told me that kumamotos are grown right there in the Puget Sound, as well as in Humboldt Bay in Northern California, and in Oregon. There’s also some kumamoto harvesting in Tomales Bay (north of San Francisco), he noted. In Japan, however, kumamotos were “fished out, died out,” he reported.
There are now “a hundred or more site-specific Pacific oysters,” Daniel told me. He said his company markets 25-30 varieties, including multiple types of oysters, with subtle differences, from the Hood Canal (west of Seattle).
It used to be that oysters were seasonal, available only in the months without “r”s. In fact, lore was that seafood, in general, was unsafe to consume from May through August. There was a semblance of truth to that; when refrigeration methods were primitive, seafood did spoil more quickly in the summer months. But fresh seafood was never deleterious, per se, simply because of the season.
On the other hand, some of it was less appetizing during summer months, the spawning season. As for oysters, they were flat, emaciated, these bivalve mollusks being worn to a frazzle from producing eggs and sperms.
When my wife and I went off to live in Austin, Texas in 1967, we were surprised to find oysters available in the summertime. “We like ’em so well around here,” a man behind the counter at the fish store told us, “we even eat ’em when they’re scrawny.”
Nowadays, of course, fleshy oysters are served the year ’round. Oysters are flown in during “r”-less months from Chile and New Zealand, Daniels said, reminding: “Our summer is their winter.” Since it’s not spawning season for them, they’re in “prime condition,” the company president said.
Just as genetic engineering has given us seedless watermelons in recent years, it has produced Pacific oysters that don’t spawn. They’re given an extra set of chromosomes, so they’re sterile, Daniels said.
For the seafood industry, with the use of genetics, the world is their oyster.
But with the safety of bioengineered food an unknown, it could be that in the future years, the FDA will issue yet another warning about oysters.
Copyright 2004, Metropolitan News Company
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