Oysters R Us: Gulf oysters are back after Gustav's surge
Many New Orleanians refuse to eat raw oysters in the summer. They still follow the old rule that says oysters on the half shell should only be eaten in months with an "R." When they flip the calendar to September, it's a starting gun that signals the season has come to slurp down oysters as fast as the shucker can pry them open.
This year, September proved to be a false start. From the day Hurricane Gustav made landfall until nearly three weeks later, Louisiana's oyster beds, which produce 40 percent of the nation's supply, were closed.
Large storms have closed our oyster beds before.
"Oysters are filter feeders, so whatever is in the water they will take in, " explained Al Sunseri of P&J Oyster Company, which sells roughly a million oysters to local restaurants in a normal month. "So if you have flooding in the area, that water has to come back out and over the top of the oysters."
Jennifer Zdon / The Times-Picayune ArchiveShuckers at P & J Oyster Company are busier than ever now that the Louisiana oyster beds have reopened.
After a flood, any chemicals on the land can be sucked up by the oysters. If the electricity goes out, waste treatment plants might also spill raw sewage into the water. Luckily, the state found only three contaminated samples among Louisiana's 28 oyster growing areas.
But why were oysters nearly impossible to find for so many weeks after this storm?
"In 30 years of being in the business, I've never seen the entire state of Louisiana closed, " Sunseri said. "Erosion has shown its ugly face. You don't have anything to stop these surges anymore." As the threat of flooding increases, the risk of contaminating the oyster beds grows. He believes that this won't be the last time oyster harvesting will be halted throughout the entire state.
"It's a crime, " he said, "that for 25 years we've known about coastal erosion, and they're still studying rather than doing."
Beyond the Gulf Coast, oysters are precious. They arrive like rock stars on jet airplanes. Or, they're farmed from waters subject to pollution and over-harvesting, only producing enough bivalves to satisfy the curious and the connoisseur. In Louisiana, oysters grow in such abundance that we can put down two dozen as a snack and still have plenty to bake, broil and saute for dinner.
"The oyster bars located near Iberville and Bourbon along with the two Drago's restaurants, those few restaurants alone sell more than what's sold in New York City, " Sunseri said.
Todd A. Price, Contributing writer, The Times-Picayune October 08, 2008 2:23PM
If you've never had a fried shrimp and fried oyster poorboy, you haven't lived.