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Shell Shocked: Why It’s More Important Than Ever to Consider the Oyster

Photography by Robert Bredvad, Food Styling by Takako Kuniyuki, Prop Styling by Paige Hicks

You can’t talk about this country’s waterways and coastal histories without oysters. The United States’ estuaries (where rivers meet the sea), such as Chesapeake Bay and Puget Sound, were largely comprised of oyster reefs, which purified the water, gave habitat to other marine life and provided stability to shorelines.

Just as important, they were one of the most abundant food sources for millennia. There are middens (shell deposits) in the U.S. that show continuous oyster consumption for over 5,000 years. Florida’s Mound Key, south of Fort Myers, contains the shells of almost 20 billion oysters that were harvested by the Calusa tribe.

“Cicero ate oysters to nourish his eloquence, and the ancients used them with a startlingly cold-blooded combination of gastronomy and pure hygiene.”

M.F.K. Fisher, from “Consider The Oyster” (1941)

These ancient middens show no reduction in oyster size or quantity over time, suggesting that indigenous people practiced sustainable fishery that colonial populations did not even think of. Until the late 1800s, oysters were so abundant as to practically be free, but by the close of the 19th century, overfishing, disease and pollution collided to spark a slow decline. Today, there are virtually no wild oysters sold commercially.

The good news is that farmed oysters are a net positive for the environment. A single adult oyster can filter up to 50 gallons of seawater a day. The so-called “oyster liquor”—the delicious liquid inside a just-shucked oyster—is just filtered seawater.

Crew members “flipping and tipping” oyster racks, which affects shape and condition, at Hog Island Oysters in Tomales Bay, California / Photography by Remy Hale

There are many advantages to (non-oyster) aquaculture in terms of providing a high-quality food source, employment, ecological balance and more. However, it can also involve drugs and chemical disinfectants, large quantities of fish feed, pollution by waste products and excess nutrients and complex equipment that negatively affects the sea floor.

Oyster farming, on the other hand, has virtually none of these downsides. Because oysters are stationary beings—making just a single real estate decision their entire lives—that require no feed and purify, rather than pollute, the water, it’s more akin to growing plants in a nursery. As a bonus, farmed oysters have a better and more reliable shape, size and taste than wild.

The shells from oyster consumption can be returned to the water with oyster “seed” (oysters are very fertile; a single male and female oyster can create millions of babies) to restore oyster reefs. In the wild, oysters like to settle and grow on other oysters or oyster shells. These reefs can help prevent coastal erosion, provide habitat for vulnerable marine creatures and help restore wild oyster populations that eventually could deliver the same environmental benefits without human intervention.

In other words, you can think of eating oysters as an ethical, and delicious, imperative.

Crucial Considerations When Opening an Oyster

Find an opening near the hinge where you can wiggle the tip of the knife between the top and bottom shells.

Slide it in parallel to the top of the shell gently, above the oyster meat. Use a back-and-forth twisting motion with your wrist, rather than poking or stabbing straight down.

As the knife goes in, turn the knife like you would a door knob to pop the shells apart.

Try not to spill the “liquor.”

Beverage Pairing with Raw Oysters

For such a simple and pure bite of food, oysters on the half-shell inspire a lot of debate about what to drink with them. This is not because they’re difficult to pair with, but just the opposite. The hit of brine contrasted with a cucumber-like sweetness lets you go in myriad directions:

Crisp and Mineral White Wines

Chablis and Muscadet are often cited as ideal pairings for their acidity and vaguely saline or seashell minerality, but add Albariño and Assyrtiko to that list. They all share qualities with the oysters themselves, for a complementary, rather than contrasting, pairing.


At least for the time being, oysters are a luxury, and Champagne amps up the level of luxe. It also has the acidity and minerality that go so well with raw oysters. And if yours happen to have stronger flavors or richer toppings, the bubbles help cleanse the palate.