A plate of Pacific oysters: heaven! You can order them from Willapa Oysters. Photo by James Antrim | IST.
Oysteer Information Including An Oyster Glossary
Part 1: Oyster Facts
CAPSULE REPORT: If you’re looking for oyster information, here it is! This is page one of a nine-page article about the oyster, including a six-page oyster glossary. Click on the black links below to visit other pages. If you love oysters as much as we do, you’ll devour every word—with or without cocktail sauce. We have many food glossaries that include other favorite foods as well, including a 13-page Seafood Glossary.
Oysters, bivalve mollusks,* are a splendid food: low-calorie, low-cholesterol, dense in protein and an excellent source of vitamins A, B1 (thiamin), B2 (riboflavin), B3 (niacin), C (ascorbic acid) and D (calciferol). Four or five medium-size oysters supply the recommended daily allowance of iron, copper, iodine, magnesium, calcium, zinc, manganese and phosphorus. Our only complaint is the expense!
*A mollusk is a chiefly marine invertebrate of the phylum Mollusca, typically having a soft, unsegmented body, a mantle, and a protective calcareous shell. Mollusks include the edible shellfish and snails.
Zoologists have determined that first appeared during the Triassic period, some 200 years ago, when dinosaurs roamed the earth. Oysters have been a popular food since the days of Neolithic man; they have been cultivated for at least 2,000 years (the Chinese cultivated them in ponds). The ancient Romans loved them and imported them from all over the Empire, sending slaves to gather them from the English Channel; the Celts and Greeks were also noted oyster lovers (Aphrodite, the Greek goddess of love and beauty, emerged from the sea on an oyster shell, forever making oysters an aphrodisiac). Our word oyster comes from the Middle English and Old French oistre, derived from the Latin ostreum and the Greek ostreon.
Early European settlers in America found an abundance of oysters along the coastlines and in the bays of the 13 colonies, which provided an easily-harvested source of protein. Up to the early 19th century, oysters were inexpensive and were eaten by the working classes. However, to meet increased demands, foreign varieties were introduced which brought disease. Combined with pollution from the Industrial Revolution, oyster beds were wiped out; oysters became rare and thus a delicacy. They remain a culinary favorite and are found around the world, in both natural and cultivated beds.
The Oyster Family
Edible oysters belong to the family Ostreidae; within the family are two geniuses (genera), Crassostrea and Oistre. While there are dozens of species worldwide, the three primary species harvested the U.S. are the Kumamoto, the Pacific and the Virginia (see a comparative photo); in limited quantity are the Flat Oyster (erroneously called the Belon in the U.S.) and the Olympia.
You can buy oysters in the shell or shucked. You’ll want them in the shell if you plan to serve them raw, on the half shell. If you’re cooking the oysters, you may prefer to pay for the convenience of shucked oysters.
If you’re doing the shucking, all things being equal, thick-shelled oysters are easier to shuck. Oysters that are beach-grown (cultivated) tend to have nice, thick shells. If in doubt, ask your fishmonger.
Now that you have your oysters, what should they taste like?
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