The big question I always ponder about oysters is, what motivated the person who first picked up this rock-like thing from the bottom of some primordial lagoon and decided to crack it open and eat the gray amorphous blob within? Perhaps it was the labia-like appearance that served as the enticement. (While the connection of oyster consumption and sexual potency is legendary, it was recently discovered that oysters contain a large concentration of zinc, a necessary nutrient for healthy sexual functioning.) Certainly it was some soul possessing an immense trust in the nurturing nature of the universe to think he could consume such a thing and live to eat again. And a visionary soul to imagine that it might taste good.
Whatever his motivation, gourmets of the world owe him one. For centuries now, these bivalve mollusks of the Ostreidae family have been highly revered by the culinary community. Raw on the half shell, deep fried in corn meal, lightly poached in an oyster stew, or cooked to death in a gumbo, few foods possess the dual qualities of such a delicate flavor in its natural state that can totally transform the taste of any dish into which it is cooked. Its sublime essence defies description.
New Orleans is blessed with a long and rich relationship with oysters. Enjoyed in their many different preparations and by every strata of society, local Louisiana oysters gained national attention in 1937 during a dinner at Antoine’s in honor of the visiting President Franklin Roosevelt. Our honorable mayor at the time, Robert S. Maestri, reportedly leaned over towards the Oysters Rockefeller-scoffing commander-in-chief and inquired, “How you like dem ersters?” Besides our seafood, we were always known for the eloquence of our civic leaders.
These days the consumption of oysters is not quite what it used to be, mainly because of the health and safety issues raised during recent years. The Vibrio vulnificus bacteria lives and has always lived in warm coastal waters. Oysters, being filter type organisms, tend to contain this bacteria, and it has been shown to develop severe infections in people with weakened immune systems and certain other conditions. While infection with this bacteria is rare, people with liver disease, kidney disease, diabetes, AIDS, cancer and some other problems should avoid any raw shellfish. Check with your doctor or the local health department for more detailed information.
Restaurants serving raw oysters, clams and mussels are now required to post signs warning of this danger. During the past few weeks I have consumed more raw oysters than the average person would in a year, and feel quite healthy for it all. And though not as prolific as they used to be, New Orleans still abounds with oyster bars, warning signs and all.
One of the grandfathers of such places is the uptown landmark Casamento’s. This place is the surviving flagship of the Creole-Italian eateries that once graced a good many more neighborhood street corners. The white ceramic-tiled interior reeks of Sicily, the birthplace of its founder. The burlap-draped green wooden oyster barrels on the front sidewalk link the place with its specialty both visually and aromatically. The thing that sets Casamento’s apart is the quality of their fried oysters. With no deep fat fryers in the kitchen, the freshly shucked bivalves are battered in corn meal and fried in black iron pots of 400-degree lard. Crisp crusts, moist insides, and no trace of any burned grease flavor is the result of this archaic method. Casamento’s’ bread treatment is also unique—loaves of white bread sliced lengthwise form the superstructure of their oyster loaves.
Raw oysters are shucked in the front half of the restaurant. The unmistakably Italian shucker drags the cold oysters from a small door on the side of a strange little refrigerator built on the end of the oyster bar. The Casamento’s method of shucking involves first striking the oyster with a ball peen hammer before loosening the shell with the traditional round-edged knife. The cold and salty oysters go for $6 per dozen and $3 per half dozen.
Felix’s in the French Quarter is a sprawling restaurant with different decor from a different generation in each room. The granite-topped oyster bar just inside the lberville Street door seems a popular gathering place for both locals and tourists. Cast in the rosy neon light of a sign reading “Oysters R in Season,” the bartenders and shuckers meander about, and seem to occasionally change roles. The oysters were tasty, cold and firm, and leaned toward the large side. They were a bargain at $5.50 per dozen and $2.75 per half.
The fried oysters were passable enough, dusted in corn flour and crisply fried, but avoid their version of Rockefeller—a starchy concoction of spinach and pepper that obliterated the delicate taste of the oysters.
Almost directly across the street from Felix’s stands a local landmark called the Acme Oyster Bar—a wild and raucous kind of place that may be the average tourist’s most accessible slice of local color. The scores of neon lights, randomly placed mirrors, and high noise level leave one feeling what it must be like to be inside of a pinball machine. Interesting grape-shaped light fixtures with dusty metal leaves hang above the bar, and every inch of wall space, every shelf top, every formerly open space is laden with accent pieces—football helmets, baseball caps, t-shirts, photos of fish, fishermen and naked women, a sombrero, a bobby’s helmet, old posters, and clipboards bearing the names and numbers of sports pools.
At the stand-up oyster bar in the front of the restaurant, you can order raw oysters to be consumed there or taken to a table. About halfway back, a cafeteria-type line serves up fried seafood, gumbo and other local favorites. Customers pay as they order at each station, and then commandeer their own table for dining.
By this stage in my research for this article, I realized that the oysters were about the same at every establishment I had patronized. This time of year, as long as they are fresh and served cold, I doubt you could find a bad oyster anywhere in town. Acme’s tasty mollusks added more credence to this theory. Their fried oysters, however, brought home how different restaurants could be in that department. The fried oyster plates at $9.95 are generous with the eighteen or so randomly sized oysters, but they are overcooked, and the burned grease taste attests to the high volume the place must do. Stick to the raw at Acme. They’re $6 per dozen, and this joint has some of the hottest horseradish ever.
At the opposite end of the cultural spectrum lies Houlihan’s Old Place on Bourbon Street. For a native, the spotlessly clean oyster bar with well-padded bar stools and two varieties of Abita on tap is the saving grace of this otherwise banal chain restaurant. Once again, the oysters were cold, firm and salty. Interesting here is the pricing. A happy hour extending from 3 p.m. to 7 p.m. features oysters on the half shell at fifty cents each. At about eight o’clock one evening, our dozen cost us $5.95. The penny-wise are advised to avoid happy hour.
The best deal of any happy hour appeared to be a block away at Mike Anderson’s. More like a happy day than hour, raw oysters are offered at a paltry twenty five cents a piece from 11:30 a.m. til 6 p.m.—only $3 a dozen! I had reached my limit at this point, but I’m sure they were cold, firm and salty.
As the saying goes, “Eat fish live longer, eat oysters love longer.” And if you are a lover of oysters, now’s the time to indulge.