Oyster Profiles

by Lauren Bridges

2-oystersBeausoleil: Grown in the cold waters of Atlantic coast of Neguac, New Brunswick, these tasty bivalves guarantee a trip to the ocean in every bite. Pristine Canadian waters provide a clear and clean brine, with a distinct delicate sweetness that could only come from such a cared for environment. They arrive to us at the Roadhouse in hand made wooden crates, the only of its kind, having been placed lovingly one by one to ensure safe travels. The impeccable taste becomes even sweeter knowing that Beausoleil (beautiful sun) was the name of a fighter during the Acadian resistance that captured seven British ships in attempts to fight the power. There is a taste of revolution in every slurp.

Kusshi: Japanese for ‘ultimate’, the pacific oyster known as the Kusshi revels in unique flavor and superior quality. Raised in the Deep Bay off of the coast of Vancouver Island, British Columbia, the Kusshi is hand cultivated to create the perfect bivalve. The Kusshis are tumbled back and forth in large trays to encourage growth in depth, rather that length. The deep cups that come from the tumbling provide not only literal depth, but also of flavor as well. The rich meat is buttery, firm, with hints of cucumber. This is an oyster that truly stands up to its name.

Olympia: The original native all-American oyster, the Olympia is a true treat. Clocking in at about the size of a quarter, this tasty bivalve stands on its own in the flavor arena. Grown in the mineral rich Totten Inlet in Washington, the profile of the Olympia is singular in taste. The mineral rich burst of flavor is present in each bite, tasting of the sea and rain and hard work. Because of their size, Olympias must be harvested by hand, one by one, from the muck. This is the same method used 100 years ago, at the height of Olympia oyster fever. Due to industrialization and pollution, the Olympia went nearly extinct until only a few years ago when the Olympia was revived. The newly cultivated Olympias are as rich as ever, and with roots to boot.

Totten Inlet Virginica: The case of the Totten Inlet Virginica is one of nature versus nurture. Virginica refers to the scientific name of an oyster that grows on the east coast. The Totten Inlet variety comes from taking a species accustomed to the conditions and environment of the east coast, and transplanting them to the west coast. The west coast provides a more constant upheaval of conditions, meaning the organized chaos of the tides coming in and out of the inlets, along with brackish currents (ones that mix fresh and salt water), make for a more fluted shell, and a more varied flavor. The interesting thing about the Totten Inlet Virginica is that it is a particular type of species, imbued a specific profile, however, the tumultuous environment of the Totten Inlet affect the flavor and shape of the oyster. And, it literally absorbs the West’s waterways. The meat is large and briny, typical of east coasters, but it becomes creamy and slightly fruity with the influence of the west. A science experiment you can really sink your teeth into.

Shad

While salmon gets the modern day mentions and Midwesterners are wild about whitefish or walleye, from an historical standpoint it’s probably shad that really should be our national fish. (It is, in fact, the state fish of Connecticut). To be convinced you need only read John McPhee’s marvelous book, “The Founding Fish,” or really any other work about early American food history.

It’s The Founding Fish
It was a fish that was native to the New World, it had (and still has) phenomenal flavor, and-because they spawned in most every river on the East Coast-almost everyone in the Colonies had access to them.

Shad was consumed in large quantities by Native Americans long before any Europeans arrived, preparing it primarily by stewing it, smoking it, baking it in clay or cooking it on wooden planks. The stories of how plentiful they were are wild-thousands of shad taken in a single netting, millions of pounds caught each spring. Because they were so plentiful shad were really poor people’s food (though a special one it seems), served in seemingly every home and hotel on the East Coast-almost every old regional cookbook offers a number of recipes for them. Native to the East Coast, the shad was taken west in the 1870s and it now swims out in the Pacific Northwest in good quantities. If you’re really into it check out the Haddam Shad Museum in Connecticut.

Shad, like salmon, is an anadromous fish, meaning they’re born in rivers, go out to sea for most of their lives, then return upstream to spawn after being out at sea for four to six years. And that’s when they’re caught. Out in the ocean they’re incredibly strong swimmers and they go great distances during the year moving from coastal waters way out to the depths of the ocean and back depending on the season. During a typical shad’s five-year life it might swim a good 12,000 miles. Generally shad are a greenish-blue in color, about 30 inches long and weigh in at roughly three to six pounds. There are three forms in which the shad arrives. Buck shad (no antlers but these are the male fish) which are generally considered the most flavorful for eating, roe shad (the females which are returning to spawn) which are also very tasty, and the roe. As the season goes on you’re getting bigger fish with bigger “sets” of roe – more on this in a minute.

Shad-lovers love it with a Passion

The thing that gets me most excited about shad is how excited other people get about shad. Having been doing all this homework on shad and catching the wave of passion that shad lovers seem to have in abundance, I feel like someone who’s been hearing about Paris for years and is about to go for the first time. Mike Monahan, who knows his fish (and whose Monahan’s Seafood Market in Kerrytown across from the Deli was listed in this year’s “Saveur” magazine Top 100-the Deli was in last year’s). “The fish is great,” he told me with that calm confidence of someone who’s known it for years. Mark Furstenberg, one of the country’s great bakers and cooks at the Bread Line in Washington, D.C., told me that, “I grew up in Baltimore where shad is king. Well, perhaps crab is king and shad is crown prince. I was in my youth a shad fanatic. And, he added to drive the point home: “I remain a shad fanatic today. No food excites me more than shad.” That’s no small statement coming from someone who’s traveled all over the world and generally eats very well wherever he goes.

It’s Strictly Seasonal

One of the interesting things about shad is that it’s still only something you can get in season. When I asked Pat Shure, long time Ann Arborite who grew up on the East Coast, about shad, her first comments were about the seasons. “It’s the thing that we don’t have any more. . . . that you have to wait for things. We’d get it every spring. There are too many things that have become year round but this is still this thing that is only seasonal. You have to wait ’til the spring and get the shad and the new lamb.” Mark Furstenberg said much the same thing. “Lamb may be a symbol of spring for some people, for me the meal that welcomes spring is shad, asparagus, and boiled new potatoes. Even today,” he went on, “my 95 year old mother drives(!) from her old folks home to Eddie’s Supermarket when the shad begins to appear so that I can be the first person in Washington to eat spring shad.” Now that’s a Jewish mother who loves her son, and some very serious devotion to seasonal eating.

The Roe’s Equally Amazing

One of the great things about the shad is that it’s not just the fish but also the roe that’s so special. The best roe is lighter color, a nice orange to dark orange. If you really want to go all out, you eat the two in tandem-we’ll be serving them that way when we can at the Roadhouse and you can do the same at home if you pick up some of each at Monahan’s Seafood Market (in Kerrytown). The roe-or egg-sacks (there are two in each female fish) are usually pan fried very lightly, then eaten as an appetizer or as right alongside the fish itself with just a squeeze of fresh lemon, salt and black pepper. As much as people love the fish, some folks get downright radiant over the roe. Molly Stevens, author of a bunch of really good cookbooks, the most recent of which is “Braising” (which, if you like to cook you should definitely own) told me that, “Even better than the fish, I like the roe-slowly fried and basted with bacon fat.” Which reminds me to tell you about the bacon.


It’s Better With Bacon

What isn’t you might ask? But shad… well, it seems like shad goes with bacon like the birds and the bees, bread and butter, peanut butter and jelly or whatever analogy you want to use. The bottom line is that most everyone that’s into the shad scene follow up their initial enthusiasm with some description of cooking it or eating that involves bacon. “Fry the bacon first and take the bacon out and then cook the fish in the bacon fat very lightly,” were Pat Shure’s instructions. Personally I’d go with the old-fashioned dry-cured, green-hickory smoked Virginia bacon we get from Sam Edwards down in Surry (where they eat a lot shad every spring too), but I’m sure it would be good with Nueske’s Applewood smoked bacon or the Arkansas Peppered Bacon as well.

The Bones add Flavor

No reason to hide it. Where most fish have one small row of pin bones in them shad have three. Shad-fish-ianado John McPhee wrote that, “Some foods seem to have been put on earth to challenge the ingenuity of the cook, and to reward the clever ones.” Citing olives and artichokes (and I’ll add lobsters to the list too) as examples, he goes on to say, “A similar challenge among fish is separating the delicious meat of shad from its many tiny bones.” Pat Shure remembers the bones rather fondly. “Your mother would say ‘Be careful of the little bones’ and you’d say ‘I know, I know.'” One method to deal with the bones is to cook the fish for a seemingly insane six hours which some say “melts” the bones down. Apparently the Delaware Indians did this in pre-colonial times but I’ve heard mixed comments from folks on its effectiveness, and it’s not my cooking method of choice. For me, it’s just about making peace with the bones. In the same way that olives come with pits, the bones are part of the package. You can at times get the shad already boned, but those in the know frown on the resulting reduction in flavor that think goes with it. As Mark Furstenberg relates, “My grandmother, whom we used to call “the last of the Edwardians,” had nothing but scorn for boned shad, knowing how much flavor bones add to fish during the cooking process.

It’s One Great Tasting Fish

Speaking of flavor, the Latin name for the fish- Alosa sapidissima-means “delicious” and in this case, there’s a lot in the name. The main thing is that I think it tastes really great. If you haven’t already guessed, I love the stuff. It’s flavorful without being in the least bit strong. A fish that most every fish lover (if they can be at peace with those bones) will likely enjoy. A fish with a history. Cook it with bacon. Or as many old Philadelphia cooks did, with lots of butter. Or with a little olive oil, garlic and chopped parsley. Monahan’s will have it in all spring, and we’ll have it regularly on the specials list at the Roadhouse too in a number of special preparations as we move through the season, along with shad roe specials too. We’re planning on featuring the shad as long as we can get it, prepared as the Native Americans did on oak planks. Planking is such a big thing that they actually have shad planking festivals on the East Coast. And we’re excited to be able to offer this old time taste of American authenticity up for Ann Arbor diners this spring. If you’re up for facing the little bones, come by and order a plate of this fine all-American fish.

What’s “Erster Purlo” Anyways?

by Ari Weinzweig

Speaking of Americana, here’s a dish I’ve been making it home that’s at the top of my cooking list of late. It’s easy, it’s great and it’s pretty quick to concoct. You know from the name that the dish has oysters in it. “Pilau” though you may not recognize right off, though when I tell you the other main ingredient in the recipe is rice, you’ll pretty quickly realize that pilau is likely an early American version of “pilaf.”

Pilau is the most characteristic dish of the Carolina rice kitchen, where its name is pronounced either PUHR-LOE or pi-LOE” (which in Julio’s New Orleans speak would make this “erster purlo”). No one is quite sure how these rice dishes were brought to South Carolina but there’s no question that they’re there and have been there for centuries. South Carolina is rice country—everyone I’ve talked to who grew up there says with great gravity about their foodways something along the lines of, “You have to understand, we eat rice at every meal. Breakfast, lunch and dinner. If there’s no rice on the table, it’s not a meal.”

In Karen Hess’ reissue of “The Carolina Rice Kitchen” there are dozens of different pilaus and main course rice dishes of comparable preparations. Her theory is that Persian Jews brought pilau to Provence in the south of France. And amongst the Huguenots who fled France and ended up in colonial Carolina were quite a few converso (secret) Jews who carried these rice dishes with them. The Carolina pilaus retained Persian techniques but got a bit simpler in their technique.

The archetypal pilau, best I can ascertain is probably one with chicken, bacon and rice. Red rice, which is probably one of my favorite dishes (recipe available on request), is made with tomato and bacon. I was inspired to make this particular dish while flipping through the Lee Brothers new book (they’re coming to the Roadhouse to do a book release dinner on Tue. March 6). We’ve been selling huge amounts of oysters and we have the new crop Carolina Gold rice in right now so it was sort of an obvious dish to jump on. Below is my adaptation of the dish that the Lee Bros have in their book but most every coastal Carolina rice cook probably has some version of it as well. Adapt at will!

To make oyster pilau, fry up some good bacon. I’ve been using the Arkansas peppered bacon but any of ours will be excellent. When the bacon is crisp remove it from the pan, chop it coarsely and set aside. Toss in a bunch of shucked oysters – say a half a pint at least. Stir so they cook on the outside but don’t overcook. Remove the oysters with a slotted spoon and set those aside too. Add a bit of olive oil, then toss in some chopped onion and celery and a bit of sea salt and cook slowly ‘til the vegetables are soft. Add a half pint of rinsed Carolina Gold Rice and stir. Let the rice “toast” lightly in the oil for a few minutes, stirring fairly regularly so it doesn’t stick. Add any oyster liquor you have from the oysters. Add a pint of chicken broth. Stir well, cover, and reduce the heat to low and let cook for 12-13 minutes. Turn off the heat and let the rice steam for another 12-13 minutes. Uncover the rice, add the oysters and chopped bacon. Stir gently (use a wooden fork or spoon ideally so as not to smash the rice grains), check the salt and serve.

It really is a great tasting dish. The smokiness of the bacon and the richness of the oysters goes great with the amazingly flavorful Carolina Gold Rice. (Remember the rice is particularly flavorful too right now because it’s new crop!). Be sure to grind on lots of Telicherry black pepper.

Why Lauren Loves Oysters

By Lauren Kelly Bridges (oyster specialist, Zingerman’s Roadhouse)

It is quite an understatement to say that it was a brave man who first ate an oyster. A triumph of nature, a feat of gastronomy, the act of consuming a raw oyster is equivalent to skydiving in the food world. Picture it: You, gripping the shell, liquor spilling over the lip of the valve, the meat of the oyster calling out to be swallowed. But, as an adventurous eater, you take that dive; and as soon as the oyster hits your lips, you are in bivalve heaven. An oyster is a rush, a curiosity, even a taboo, but decidedly an indulgence set aside for those who are eager to dabble in the daring side of the culinary world.

The taste of a raw oyster is unparalleled- sweet, salty, and unequivocally, of the sea. Between the shells lies a treasure, a gift journeyed from far away depths to give you, fearless gourmand, a personal tour of the ocean. The raw meat of an oyster speaks of the waters it came from, whether the pure cold bodies surrounding Prince Edward Island, or the rough brackish currents of Washington State. It tells the story of how it came to you; the language of each oysters life is transcribed into its taste, its flavor, and its profile.

The thrill of eating raw oysters takes us to another place. The sea beckons us to imbibe its sweetness, to revel in its wares. The crisp rush of brine as we slurp, bite, and swallow is like no other. So, strap in, take the plunge. Eat the oyster.

Eating Oysters at the Roadhouse

On the Half Shell

by Ari Weinzweig

Freshly opened and eaten as is, this is still my favorite way to eat oysters. Order two or twenty. I’m happy to share my favorites in the moment next time you’re in. My personal recommendation for your next dozen is to try an all-coastal oyster platter – two each of East Coast, West Coast, Apalachicolas, Westcott Bay Flats (the European oysters raised in American waters), Kumamotos and Olympias.

BBQ’d Oysters
Prepared in the style of Hog Island off the North Coast of California, this is the Roadhouse dish that writer John T. Edge chose as the top pick on his list of ten dishes not to miss in 2006óthereís only two months left in the year soÖ try em soon. Oysters roasted on the wood grill then shucked and finished with a bit of cider vinegar-base barbecue sauce.

Oyster Po’boy for Lunch
Fried oysters on a Bakehouse bun with a bit of homemade remoulade sauce with lettuce and tomato.

Hangtown Fry for Saturday and Sunday Brunch
The old dish of the California Gold Rush days. Pan fried oysters mixed in with lots of bacon and eggs from our Amish friends at Sunrise Poultry in Homer, Indiana.

Oysters Rockefeller
Never on the menu but you can order them if you’re in the know which you now are. Originally invented at Antoine’s Restaurant in New Orleans in the second half of the 19th century by Antoine Alciatore, who came to the US from Marseilles. The original recipe is still a secret but, of course, as the dish gained fame and spread across the country there are hundreds of different versions. Alex Young (chef and managing partner at the Roadhouse) has been developing his version for about fifteen years I think. Freshly shucked briny East Coast oysters in a made-to-order sauce of white wine, cream, some of the aged stravecchio parmesan from Antigo, Wisconsin, a bit of Nueske’s applewood smoked bacon, a touch of fennel, some minced shallot, fresh minced garlic, fresh spinach, salt and pepper.

Alex’s Oyster Bisque
Exceptionally rich and really really good. Made with Andy Quady’s amazing Vya Dry Vermouth and lots of cream from Calder Dairy.

A Practical Guide to Eating Oysters

by Ari Weinzweig

With all those different oysters out there to order, how do you know what makes one different from the next? These are three main things that will affect the flavor of the oyster.

1.) Oyster species : Five Main Types

East Coast Oysters

Also known as Atlantics, or (inaccurately) American oysters. They’re big with thick, more-smooth-than-not, heavy shells that are fairly flat across the top and curved on the bottom. The oyster inside is beige to cream color, with kind of elegant black-brown edges. They’re pretty meaty and fairly mild and clean in flavor, tasting of the sea, of course, and subtly sweet, with a long and not-too-minerally finish.

Pacific Oysters

Originally from Japan, the shells of these oysters are more deeply cupped than those of East Coast oysters, and will vary a lot in color from one source to the next – gray, brown, or almost greenish in cast sometimes. The meat inside is usually a bit lighter in color than East Coast oyster. And the mantle around the edge is gray. Their flavor tends to be a bit bigger than the East Coasters, but still briny and clean in the finish.

Olympias

They’re certainly the cutest of the lot. Olympias are little bitty beauties native to the American Northwest. Because they’re so small – somewhere between a quarter and a fifty-cent piece – you don’t get a huge amount to eat out of an Oly. They’ve got a cool, cucumbery, coppery-tinged flavor that sometimes even hints of melon. Since they’re so rarely seen in this part of the world, we’re particularly excited to be able to offer these at the Roadhouse.

Kumamatos

Originally brought to North American waters from the island of Kyushu in Japan, Kumamatos were deemed doomed to fail because of their small size and low yield. However, Kumamatos are big (as in “buzz”) over here and getting bigger all the time. Bite-size, fresh-smelling and crunchy, they have lovely, frilly, deeply cupped shells and a fresh, clean, slightly sweet, nutty flavor.

European flats

The most commonly known lay name for these oysters is Belons. Native to Europe, they’ve got round, flattish, plate-like shells with sort of dust-ruffly edges. There are a few folks in North America raising them. They taste distinctively of sea salt, a bit more buttery than the others, a touch crunchier in their texture, with a sharp, coppery, seaweedy aftertaste.

2.) The Water They’re Raised In

Water is to oysters what soil is to the plants that grow in it.
Like all traditional foods (as opposed to the Twinkies, Space Sticks, Tang and the canned fruit cocktail I grew up with) oysters will taste totally different depending on where they come from. This is why oysters are generally sold by the name of the bay or inlet from which they were taken. While there is still variation from day to day, oyster-to-oyster, etc., the water source will give you a fairly good indicator of what you’re likely to find.

To understand what makes the oysters from one bay different from those harvested from another, look to water temperature, the ratio of salt water to fresh, the mineral makeup of the water and the type of phytoplankton the oyster is eating.

3.) Seasonal Effects

Despite the standard wisdom about not eating oysters in months that are without an “R” in them, it turns out that you can get perfectly good to eat oysters year round.
The old “wisdom” came about because the summer months are typically the spawning season and oysters that are actually spawning aren’t likely to be that tasty. But spawning oysters aren’t bad – just different; a bit thinner in flavor but still certainly tasty.

By contrast, during the colder months of the year, the oysters build up a natural supply of glycogen, which is the starch that basically works like a energy bar for oysters – gives ’em that added boost they need to reproduce. So, colder water – either because of season or because of geography – generally means more glycogen, which in turn yields a sweeter oyster.

A Note on Apalachicola Oysters


They’re taken from some of the only wild – not farmed – oyster beds left in American waters. Because the waters down in “Apalach” are so much warmer, we only bring them during the winter months. I ate a lot of them when I was down there last spring and they’ve very good, definitely something that an oyster lover should try.

Apalachicola Oysters

by Ari Weinzweig

While were in the depths of Michigan winter, we’re at the height of brightness when it comes to the season for savoring oysters from Florida’s Forgotten Coast. They come in nicely from November through April, and the coldest months – January, February and March – is when they’re at their sweetest. So, let me be the first to welcome you in to taste and toast the good people and the great tasting treats from a part of the world few folks ever get to see.

Intellectual Oystering

Oysters are a subject I’ve been studying hard for the last few years. I’ve read a bunch of books, visited a half dozen oyster producers and three times that many websites, and started teaching oyster classes. My particular interest in oysters from Apalachicola came about because I had the chance to travel down that way last spring.

Apalachicola is really about working people and a long-standing natural resource. The name Apalachicola means “those who live on the other side” in the Lower Cree language. It doesn’t really have any colonial background because it was settled straight away by American citizens only after the US took ownership of the area from Spain in 1821. The town got going in the 1830s as a major center for cotton export, in the process becoming the third largest port on the Gulf. Then, as now, it had only a small year round population; in the summer the town emptied out, then livened up again in the fall and winter.

The seafood trade got going in earnest in the 1880s, so much so that the streets were literally paved with oyster shells. By the end of the 19th century, Apalachicola was producing 10 percent of the country’s annual oyster crop. That said, it’s still a small town; the present day population is under 3000, with about twice that many living in the unincorporated areas outside of town. This is where you’ll find Tommy Ward and 13 Mile, our source for Apalachicola oysters.

Wild Work

Most of the oysters we’re getting from Apalach are from some of the last commercially worked wild oyster beds in the country. By contrast, nearly all the other oysters we get are farmed. There’s something about the connection to the wild, about the way of life that goes with it, about being able to eat an oyster that grew, as its ancestors did, on its own out in the bay.

The oysters that we get from Apalachicola are unique in flavor – meatier, more buttery. They look different too. Bigger and craggier, sort of rumpled and disheveled in contrast to the smaller, tighter, and smoother shells of oysters from more northerly climes. Also, because the water is so much warmer, they grow faster – ready to eat in under two years.

A lot of the Apalach oysters are still taken from the water using the old 19th century technique, known down that way as “tonging the bay.” The work is done from small boats, generally one or two guys on each, working with a set of oyster tongs that are somewhere between eight and fourteen feet long with a set of iron teeth at the end of each pole. The hardest part is lifting the oysters out of the water. While standing on the edge of a boat, you put the tongs down to the bottom of the bay. Jiggle ’em around a bit to get the teeth to take, then you sort of bounce the tong handles gently towards each other, gathering up as many oysters as you can from the bottom. A good tonger can take up to 30 pounds at a time, which is great for yields, but it’s hard on the shoulders. Tonging takes pretty serious upper arm strength – it’s not easy getting the oysters up and out of the water while holding the tongs closed so you don’t drop everything back in.

The Terrific Taste of the Oysters

A third generation oysterman from rural Florida, I met Tommy Ward first down in Apalach last spring, then again in Oxford, Mississippi, at the Southern Foodways Symposium this past October.

One thing I’ve learned in my limited time with Tommy is that he’s very dedicated to his town and to the people who work at 13 Mile. The place was pretty much nearly totaled by Hurricane Dennis a few years ago, but Tommy worked seven days a week for over a year to put it all back together, maintaining jobs and tradition in the process. He regularly mentions that 13 Mile employs over sixty people, and that most have spouses and kids to support from their work. He’s also very proud of his oysters – oystering is his passion, not just a way to make a living. “I pride myself in having the best oyster in the world,” he told Amy Evans. “We have the best oysters in the whole world right here in this bay.”

From Apalach to Ann Arbor


Joe York put it to me pretty nicely I think – “like the oysters, these outstanding people live separated from those outside of their culture by a shell of skepticism and suspicion, and that shell takes some work to get through, but once inside, you will find there are few things better, and that getting there was worth all the effort.”

I’m glad that we did the work to get Tommy’s oysters up here. I don’t think they’ve ever been to Michigan. I appreciate the efforts of everyone down at 13 Mile and also out at the Roadhouse to get them all the way here from Apalachicola. I hope you get to come by and taste Tommy’s oysters. The season runs through the end of April, so now’s the time. If, by chance, you’re down Apalachicola way, by all means head out to 13 Mile and tell ’em you’re from Ann Arbor. I have a feeling that you’ll quickly be welcomed as one of the family and be eating some really good oysters!