Why are pirates allowed to eat oysters all year round?
June 19, 2008 5:34 PM   Subscribe

Is it ok to eat oysters in months NOT ending with an "R"?

It's the summer and I can't think of anything I'd rather do than sit around and eat some oysters while drinking beer. A few of my friends have scoffed at the idea of eating oysters during the summer. Apparently it's absolutely heretical.

Is there an authoritative verdict on this? Most sources I've looked at state that this whole "months ending in R edict" is pure folklore. Some people have countered, claiming that the oysters don't taste as good because it's mating season.

I've read conflicting things on the internet. I'd like an unequivocal statement to end the argument and hopefully convince my friends to have an oyster and beer party.
posted by Telf to Food & Drink (15 answers total)
According to this article in Saveur Magazine...sure!
posted by keep it tight at 5:45 PM on June 19, 2008

Well, I understand some farmed oysters are triploid and sexless—diverting no time or energy to reproduction means a bigger oyster. But I'll go see if Harold McGee has anything to say about it.
posted by eritain at 6:04 PM on June 19, 2008

They get mushy when they're spawning, and are just not as yummy. The "no R" months are usually when the water gets warm enough to stimulate spawning. This year, it's been so cold, that May, a no R month wasn't spawn time yet. They were still yummy.
posted by reflecked at 6:09 PM on June 19, 2008

Well, On Food and Cooking 2nd ed. confirms that shellfish in general are less tasty just before spawning, and also that their flavor depends on the water's salinity (more salt in the water -> more amino acids in the oyster -> more umami) and that their growth and sexual maturity depend on water temperature (colder water -> leaner, crisper, less mature oyster). So if the new year brings lower salinity (increased river runoff, maybe) and if summer brings warmer waters, there might be something to the dictum, at least for normally sexed oysters. Survey says triploids are fine any time.

BTW, the triploid oysters are a hybrid between normal diploids and naturally-occurring tetraploids, nothing more GMO-sinister than that. So eat up without fear.
posted by eritain at 6:15 PM on June 19, 2008 [1 favorite]

I had six malpeques tonight that were pretty good and I'm going to have six local Long Island oysters at Tully's out in Hampton Bays on Sunday (six for six bucks, the sweetest, freshest oysters I've ever had), after that I might take a break until the fall unless I'm really tempted by being around Tully's or I see some handsome ones, just because I really love them and I don't want to get a bad tasting bunch. It's more of a guideline than a rule for me in other words. Oysters are magical.
posted by Divine_Wino at 6:28 PM on June 19, 2008

The edict forbidding oyster-eating in months without R had its origins long ago, in the days before refrigeration — oysters were packed in ice and shipped. In warm weather (May, June, July, August) you never knew whether they were still fresh when arrived in your town, and people decided it wasn't worth it to eat oysters then. At least, that's the origin of the edict. Modern seafood gourmets have added riffs to it — see above.
posted by exphysicist345 at 7:01 PM on June 19, 2008 [1 favorite]

Amazing. And all this time I thought that edict was about red tides.
The term "red tide" is also commonly used to describe harmful algal blooms on the northern east coast of the United States, particularly in the Gulf of Maine. This type of bloom is caused by another species of dinoflagellate known as Alexandrium fundyense. These blooms of organisms cause severe disruptions in fisheries of these waters as the toxins in these organism cause filter-feeding shellfish in affected waters to become poisonous for human consumption due to saxitoxin.
posted by Class Goat at 7:18 PM on June 19, 2008

Just to be anal: it's months with an R in them, not months ending in R.

More to the point, though, I'm sure it's fine. Maybe the oysters won't be as tasty as they will be in December, but who's thinking about December when you want them now?
posted by My Bloody Pony at 7:24 PM on June 19, 2008

The edict forbidding oyster-eating in months without R had its origins long ago, in the days before refrigeration — oysters were packed in ice and shipped. In warm weather (May, June, July, August) you never knew whether they were still fresh when arrived in your town, and people decided it wasn't worth it to eat oysters then. At least, that's the origin of the edict. Modern seafood gourmets have added riffs to it — see above.

For those of us who grew up in areas where oysters are local, the edict forbidding oysters in the summer was because they're watery and flabby. This isn't a new gourmet riff. I learned it from my great-grandmother, who was born in 1890.
posted by desuetude at 8:07 PM on June 19, 2008

I don't eat oysters May through August. The reasons are many: I don't think the wild ones taste as good during that time; I don't believe the chain of refrigeration is really all that much better in 2008 than it was in 1850, resulting in a high chance of eating a spoiled oyster and puking for days; and finally, I just enjoy observing an old folk tradition.
posted by ikkyu2 at 9:15 PM on June 19, 2008

It depends. Where did the oyster come from (the season varies upon where it was harvested)? And how was it stored before it got to you (are you confident that it has arrived alive, sans bacteria and toxins, whatever)?

From the New York Times:
Decades ago, oysters were not harvested or sold in the summertime mainly because of the heat. But it is no longer difficult to keep oysters chilled in transit or in a restaurant, even on the sultriest days. Oysters were also avoided in the summer because that is their spawning season, when they are less plump and briny-sweet. "It's bizarre," said Mr. Rowley, the seafood consultant. "People love to eat raw oysters sitting out on a deck with a cold beer in summer even though it's not the best time of year to eat them."

Though oysters still spawn when waters warm in the summer, the problem is now more navigable than it was a few decades ago. Many restaurateurs and chefs buy oysters from areas where the water stays colder in summer. "Ours is a site with oceanic water," said Mr. Malinowski of Fishers Island Oyster Farm. "When the water is this cold the oysters sometimes don't spawn at all."

Sandy Ingber, the buyer for the Oyster Bar in Grand Central Station, said, "Oysters spawn for a few weeks, not all summer, so there are always some available that are not spawning." He added that he rejects any shipments he receives of spawning oysters.

"Today there are many more varieties from so many different areas, so it's easier to find non-spawning oysters than it was in the past," he said.
Many people, including Gourmet contributing editor and seafood guru Jon Rowley prefer eating oysters during he r months. Rowley lists his favorites in the link.

As mentioned earlier, if you're afraid of getting a spawning oyster, try a triploid instead. The SF Chronicle interviewed Michael Toussaint, owner and founder of Marin Oyster Co. in Marshall, on Tomales Bay, CA:
"Summer and early fall is my peak season," he says. He is currently averaging 500 bushels (about 60,000 oysters) a week.

There is no off season for Pacific oysters because they are hybridized.

In a natural oyster cycle, oysters spawn during the summer, when water temperatures rise. When putting its energies into spawning, oyster flesh turns soft and milky, the opposite of the crisp, clean taste and mouthfeel that delight oyster lovers. Pacific oysters have been altered to spawn very lightly, so that most of us cannot taste the difference in the summer.

Most of the farmers in Tomales Bay now grow these hybrids, called triploids, and buy their seedlings from hatcheries.
posted by kathryn at 10:49 PM on June 19, 2008

"Why are pirates allowed to eat oysters all year round?"

Because pirates know about the delicious convenience of canned smoked oysters. No, they are nothing like the slippery, clean cool goodness of fresh oysters, but the smoked version are their own kind of good, and have a lot of tasty uses in all year 'round.
posted by paulsc at 3:48 AM on June 20, 2008

ikkyu2: " I don't believe the chain of refrigeration is really all that much better in 2008 than it was in 1850"

I was a wholesale fish and shellfish dealer for a long time and I can assure you that the cold chain is far better in 2008 than it was even in 1990. Large and small fish dealers have spent millions on refrigeration to comply with federal HACCP guidlines since 1997.

Also, reflecked is right about spawning oysters. A good farm won't ship spawning oysters as they are weakened and not of good quality. It's easier to keep your oysters in the water for a week or two, rather than field the calls from angry customers.
posted by kuujjuarapik at 5:51 AM on June 20, 2008 [1 favorite]

I just had oysters- 5 varieties, from Long Island, WA, BC, and I can't remember where else- on Sunday, and they were quite delicious.
posted by mkultra at 6:35 AM on June 20, 2008

If you really want to get the full story, you should read the wonderful "The Big Oyster" by Mark Kurlansky (transcribing errors, my own).
p 79 "In the fall, the oysters would be pickled and shipped out. Although New Yorkers ate oysters all year long, it was believed that the oyster in the months without R – May, June July, and August – were of inferior quality and so they waited for the better oysters to come in the fall. This is an ancient and somewhat mythological belief. In 1599, William Butler, a contemporary of Shakespeare, wrote, "It is unreasonable and unwholesome in all months that have not R in their name to eat oysters." The myth has an element of truth in the case of New York. Oysters take their cue to begin spawning when the water warms up, which is in May, and it is true that spawning oysters tend too be thin, transluscent, and generally less appealing. Some argued that letting the beds rest during spawning season was a good conservation measure. Summer oysters are, however, perfectly healthy unless spoiled in the market by summer heat."
p 83 - "In 1715, the colonial government, as a conservation measure, banned oystering in the months without Rs, May 1 to September 1, because it was the egg-laying season."
p 102 - "In 1807, the city suspended the law that barred letting oysters enter the city in the summer months."
p 132 - "Supplying oysters to the great market only sixty-five miles away was heavy and dangerous work. The oysters were transported by schooners and wagons. A schooner would carry about seven hundred bushels, about fifty thousand pounds, through Fire Island Inlet at the most dangerous time of the year, the R months."
p205-206 - "In 1855, New York City mayor Henry Wood, responding to the oyster panic the previous year, moved to rigorously enforce the generally ignored laws restricting oyster sales. In 1839, a law had been passed reviving an old law about months lacking R. It outlawed the sale of oysters in New York from May 1 to September 1. This had created a festive moment in restaurants and markets when the oyster season reopened in September. Municipalities were free to lengthen the off-season, and the Great South Bay had stayed closed until September 15 and the Brooklyn beds didn't open until October 1. But by 1855, when Mayor Wood began rigorously enforcing the law, most New Yorkers had forgotten about it. By then, New Yorkers were not panicked anymore and they laughed at the old-fashioned law. Ballou's Pictorial in the fall of 1855 wrote of oystermen who had started spelling the month "Orgust" so that it would have an R. Even then this was was already an old joke.
The debate about the R month continued throughout the century. In September, at the opening of the 1883 season, a satirical New York Times editorial said, "There are eager lovers of the oyster who will eat 'fries' and 'broiled' up to 12 P.M. on the 30th day of April, but no good man will touch an oyster after the hour has struck." The article suggests that the unlucky Italians can't eat oysters because Gennaio, the Italian name for January, has no R. "On the other hand, the Arab of the desert can eat oysters in certain Mohammedan months which contain 'R', while in the corresponding Christian months the gracious 'R' is wanting."
"It was mainly with a view to oysters that Julius Caeser reformed the calendar. He found that what the almanach called the summer occurred late in the autumn, so that in the months in which oysters were particularly desirable no 'r' existed. He therefore pushed back the 'r' less months into the heat of summer and enabled the Roman to feast on oysters on the true first of September. Moreover he invented leap year merely for the purpose of adding another oyster day to February. It was by these two grand strokes of genius that Caeser won the enthusiastic support of the Roman oyster dealers and endeared himself to every Roman whose taste for oysters had not been destroyed by the artificial and unwholesome dishes affected by the rich and dissolute members of the Pompeiian party."
posted by tellurian at 10:15 AM on June 20, 2008 [1 favorite]

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