Tommy’s Restaurant and Oyster Bar, the Galveston Bay Foundation and Jeri’s Seafood Team Up for Oysters
If you think that the “named” oysters from the northeast and Pacific coasts are superior to Galveston Bay reefs … don’t tell Tommy Tollett of Tommy’s Restaurant and Oyster Bar in Clear Lake that. Don’t tell the Galveston Bay Foundation or Jeri’s Seafood on Smith Point that, either. If they have their way, you will be asking for Galveston Bay Oysters by appellation (or the name of the reef). You, if you are accustomed to ordering oysters in fine seafood restaurants and oyster bars, have heard of Chesapeake Bay Oysters (certainly, there must be multiple reefs in THAT Bay, too), Blue Point Oysters and possibly several others of the dozens of appellations along the East coast. Along the west coast of the United States, there are different species, as well as dozens of appellations of them, also. It is important to note that oysters along the east coast are the same species (Crassostrea Virginica) that we have in Galveston Bay! The differences come mostly from the characteristics of the water, the reefs and the salinity in the water around the reefs. The shells even differ from reef to reef. There’s a marked difference between the oysters along the northern east coast of the U.S. They are much smaller than those plump, tasty oysters that we get from our Galveston Bay reefs. So, why don’t Galveston Bay appellations get any respect? Who knows? I believe that it’s merely the marketing by producers in those areas. Marketing is the very reason that most people in the United States think that Dallas is the biggest city in Texas.
As I grew up near Seabrook on Galveston Bay, I have eaten pedestrian “Gulf Coast” oysters all of my life. I have progressed (grown?) from a “dunker” to a ”slurper” (tipping the shell and sliding the oyster into my mouth), thus savoring the water from the vicinity of the reef from which it was harvested. That’s part of enjoying an oyster, isn’t it?
I never knew the difference between the many appellations of Galveston Bay oysters. In fact, it was just a few weeks ago, at a side-by-side comparison between oysters from 12 different reefs in Galveston that I really learned to appreciate the differences in taste, shape, texture and appearance. Everything about an oyster is different from reef to reef. That includes the shape of the shell, its salinity; its minerality;its sweetness, the flavor you taste when you first place the oyster in your mouth (usually the salinity of the water around the reef); the flavor of the oyster itself when you chew it; and the aftertaste. Oyster aficionados are much like wine enthusiasts. They sit around sipping, smelling, slurping, inhaling, exhaling and describing the experience in glowing superlatives.
On my first limited side-by-side comparison of Galveston Bay oysters, I sampled the marked differences between the Pepper Grove, Stephenson’s Reef and the very common San Antonio Bay oysters (that we have probably all had for $4.00 to 5.00/dozen). The various reefs that these generic Galveston Bay oysters are harvested from are many and the ones you are served may change daily. Examples might be oysters from San Antonio Bay, or Companos from Aransas Pass. Compare these with those from more than a dozen Galveston Bay “Appellation oyster” reefs. Fewer than one hundred out of a thousand oysters qualify for this honor. The shells are identifiable… the oysters are plump and firm. These are the specimens that oyster snobs love to describe and they are the oysters that win the hearts of oyster newbies.
So if you were to find a restaurant that serves flights of Galveston Bay appellations (like Tommy’s) it will be quite an experience. I point this out because many restaurants that serve “flights” of 12 different oysters provide a dozen oysters with servers providing glowing talking points providing descriptions of each of the mostly Northeastern, or Pacific coast appellations. There will not be a single local Texas oyster on the plate.
This map of Galveston Bay reefs created by Steve Mikulencak, (copyright Texas Sea Grant College Program at Texas A&M University) may be found at this link:
So, in Galveston Bay, the oyster experience may be simplified into a four-pronged fork in which all four prongs must work together to bring healthy tasty oysters to your mouth… and they DO:
–The Second Prong is the responsible harvesting and distribution of the oysters. Jeri’s Seafood on Smith Point, near Anahuac, Texas, harvests and distributes oysters from reefs throughout Galveston Bay, as well as making sure that the quality control is there to market oysters by reef name, or appellation to restaurants. Due to the fact that oysters are safe to eat year-round, Jeri’s was the first oyster house in Texas to be fully air-conditioned, from sack storage, through opening, processing, containers and frozen storage. Here’s Jeri’s Seafood’s website: http://www.jerisseafood.com/
So, there are two parallel efforts. Jeri’s Seafood put shells on their own commercial reefs that they lease from the State of Texas. It’s almost like a private farming operation. Galveston Bay Foundation’s efforts are generally geared towards near shore reefs that can’t be harvested, but provide water quality and habitat benefits.
–The Third Prong is the seafood restaurateur. Whenever you buy oysters in a restaurant, ASK what reef the oysters come from. They may tell you that they are simply “Galveston Bay Oysters”. The more customers become educated about the bay and oyster reefs, as well as the characteristics of the various reefs, the more that the restaurateurs will cater to their customers’ requests (and realize how much more they can charge ($12.00 to $15.00 a dozen instead of $5.00 a dozen for no-name oysters).
Tommy’s Restaurant and Oyster Bar in Clear Lake City is an example of an oyster bar that recycles shells (over 100,000 pounds of shells per year). Tommy’s offers specific appellations to their guests and enjoy educating customers about the appellations that are being offered on a given day. Here’s Tommy’s website: http://tommys.com/wordpress/
–The fourth prong is YOU, the final consumer. As the list of oyster bars that work with GBF grows, support those restaurants. Always ask your server, or the shucker where their oysters are from. Try to educate your oyster bar about your love for the unique tastes and characteristics of our LOCAL oysters. For your own education, go to the Galveston Bay foundation’s website at www.galvbay.org where you may also support them by volunteering, as well as donating any amount that you can afford to preserve Galveston Bay.
Oysters are safe to eat all year around. Eating them in the summer months will not kill you and it won’t even make you sick. No one is sure where the “old wives’ tale” about “R months” came from. There are concerns about “red tides” which occur during hot months. Shellfish may spread toxins from affected oysters. The only problems with this have come from locally harvested shellfish. This is not a concern with oysters coming from commercial harvesters. If it BECOMES a problem, there is ample warning via the news media. In the Summer of 2009, oysters were recalled from San Antonio Bay.
Some claim that the admonition to avoid oysters in the summer came from the Native Americans (ca. 1700’s) warning the settlers not to eat them during the hot months. Others believe that it dates back to ancient Rome. Another problem in those hot summer days was that it was dangerous to ship oysters great distances before the age of refrigeration. Current regulations on the industry also protect oyster consumers.
Another potential (sorta) problem in the summer (and the only REAL one) is that it is usually when oysters spawn (If the reef’s arockin’… don’t come aknockin). As any oyster aficionado knows, a fertile oyster can turn thin, milky and flacid — far from ideal, but NOT dangerous. They’re just very busy and not worrying much about their appearance.
As P. J. O’Rourke says: “Don’t ever serve oysters in a month that has no paycheck in it.”