The Truth About Oysters — The Bivalve That Will Feed Us While Saving The Planet

It all started in the summer of 1985. I was staying on an island off the coast of British Columbia with my parents and grandparents. It was a shockingly beautiful place — a winding circuit of inky black fjords. Bald eagles perched atop old growth pines, waiting for the perfect salmon to snatch out of the water. The cliffs tumbled into the sea where they gave birth to walls of dank seaweed, rife with shellfish, for the waves to bash against night and day. Not a bad place to be five.

That summer my grandfather talked me into eating something I’d never tasted before, an oyster. On the south side of the island he’d found a beach that was one huge oyster garden. We each grabbed a bucket, filling them in a matter of minutes. I couldn’t lift mine, so my grandfather carried a bucket in each hand as he led the way back to the house.

The next day, beside the fire pit, I learned how to shuck an oyster. Next, they went into a pale red cocktail sauce my grandma had whipped up earlier. Then my grandfather threw a few onto the old oven grate that was propped up over the fire. He instructed me to watch them carefully and yell when the top valve of each oyster rose, releasing a bit of steam. I shouted that they were opening and my grandfather came over and plopped them all on a plate and quickly applied some garlic butter and a fresh squeeze of lemon. Lunch was served.

I boldly shook my head when my grandfather held out a tiny fork and insisted I try one. They looked like pale slugs, which no five-year-old is going to be stoked on eating. But the old man was having none of that sh*t. I still remember him saying, “You have to try everything twice! Once to know what it tastes like. And again in case the chef screwed it up the first time!” I closed my eyes, held my nose, and slurped a little oyster into my mouth. It was salty, briny, buttery, spicy, and gooey. The gooey bit threw me, as it does for so many.

I chewed and swallowed, not wanting to let the old man down. He offered me another one and I shook my head vigorously. Then he offered me the raw ones, still swimming in the cocktail sauce. They looked like bloody slugs. I ran to the safety of my mom at that point. He just smirked and said, “You’ll love ’em one day, boy!”

He was right. Over the next 30 odd years I’ve eaten a lot of oysters around the world, but none of them will ever be that first one my grandfather gave me in 1985.


The oysters we’re familiar with today are a very old species. 200,000,000 years ago, the mollusks living on the coasts and in brackish backwaters, would be indistinguishable from those we eat today. It’s kind of cool to imagine that when we eat an oyster, we’re eating something a dinosaur may have eaten.

The oldest known cultivation of oysters date back at least 4,000 years ago, in Japan. However shell middens (prehistoric garbage dumps) off the coast of British Columbia show that humans were eating oysters at least 10,000 years ago. Ancient Romans were also in on the oyster game and had large cultivation areas on the French and British coastlines.

Throughout modern history oysters were the food of the masses. The Hudson estuary in New York harbor had 350 square miles of oyster beds alone. Oysters were so popular that entire stocks along the east coast between New York and the Chesapeake were decimated by massive over-harvesting and alien species introduction. By the 1920s, the scarcity of the oyster (on the east coast that is) shifted the focus of the food from the working-class staple to a high-class delicacy. And the loss of the oyster beds would have a long term impact nobody back then could have predicted.


If you’re into oysters, you’ve probably heard the old axiom: Only eat oysters during months that end in ‘R!’ Many attribute this to a heightened risk of food borne illness related to red tides (noxious algae blooms) or very unfriendly bacteria called vibrio vulnificus. The ‘R’ myth actually doesn’t have anything to do with whether or not a raw oyster is going to make you sick. It’s about sex, baby.

Oysters reproduce when the water temperatures rise every year. This, of course, happens in the summer months, or those months that don’t end in -r. Oysters are mostly born in the month between July and August. So full grown adults are at their largest, expelling sperm and eggs (oysters contain both sex organs) into the water, and generally they’re kinda mushy and oversized to eat. You can. But why eat a sh*tty oyster that’s been floating around in its own sperm and eggs?

Of course, that all changed when oysters started being farmed and whether it was summer or not became largely inconsequential. How so? 98 percent of the oysters consumed are farm raised. So, while yes, there are more red tides in the summer, and yes vibrio vulnificus is a real bacteria that makes about 90 people a year sick — eating oysters in the summer is more about quality then anything else.


Oyster tend to form clumps that we like to call oyster reefs. These reefs create a natural habitat for marine life and can support hundreds of species. Many of these were destroyed before we realized oyster farming was the way to go. Some of the biggest impact of the loss of oyster beds and reefs has been along the East Coast. Turns out, oysters are a major keystone species and losing their presence on our coast was a mammoth disaster.

Oysters open their top valve to filter water through their gills to feed. This process filters sea water at a rate of 50 gallons per day per oyster. A single acre of oyster reef contains around 750,000 oysters. That’s 37,500,000 gallons of water cleaned daily by just one acre of oysters. Remember New York’s Hudson estuary had 350 square miles of oyster beds — that’s 224,000 acres.

This shouldn’t come as a shock, but Connecticut, Delaware, New York, Maryland, and New Jersey are investing in rebuilding their oyster beds and reefs to clean their horrendously polluted waters. Oysters are proven to be masters at filtering nitrogen, phosphorus, and carbon from water — a filtration those waters are in desperate need of.

Oyster farms are feeding people and cleaning up the environment as we speak. Matt Greg, from Forty North in New Jersey, put it this way, “I don’t feed my oysters anything. They actually eat a food that created the whole problem: algae. For my farm, by the time an oyster is ready to go to market, it could have filtered up to 40k gallons of water. That’s just one oyster!”

But how much is this going to cost, you might ask. A filtration oyster reef installation on Myrtle Beach cost $3,000. It filters roughly 1.2 million gallons of water daily.


Okay now that we know oysters literally filter sh*t out of water, you probably don’t want to eat them. This magic animal isn’t done being amazing yet. All oysters (and most bivalves) need to go through a process called Depuration. This is accomplished by placing the oyster in a clean water environment which allows the oysters to filter and purge any unwanted bacteria and fecal matter before they’re ready for consumption. It’s simple, yet crucial step in the sea-to-plate process.

Nutritionally, oysters are an excellent source of zinc, iron, calcium, selenium, vitamin A, and vitamin B12. And this is where another myth comes into play. Whenever men ejaculate, we lose a lot of the zinc in our system. Oysters contain a huge amount of zinc. Oyster also contain a very rare set of amino acids: D-aspartic acid (D-Asp) and N-methyl-D-aspartate (NMDA). These amino acids were injected into rats and showed a large increase in testosterone in males and progesterone in females. That means the rats got horny AF. (The amino acid levels are higher when consumed raw, in case you’re wondering.)

How you eat oysters is a personal preference. Raw, fried, grilled, smoked, chowder-ed, Rockefeller-ed…it’s all good. Another great facet of the oyster is that it is super low in calories. Every dozen yields about 110 total calories if you’re counting.

If you’re shucking your own oysters, here’s one hard and fast rule for safety. If the top valve of the shell is open, tap on it. If it closes, the oyster is still alive. If it doesn’t close, that means the oyster is dead. Throw it away. Never eat or cook an oyster that is not alive. Also, always wear a thick glove.


Three places come to mind when I think oysters — The Pacific Northwest, New Orleans, and Ireland. Don’t get me wrong. I’ll eat an oyster omelette from a street vendor in Bangkok every day of the week and twice on Sundays. But oysters isn’t the first thing I think when I think “Thailand.”

Hama Hama Oysters is a family run oyster farm on the Hamma Hamma River estuary in the Hood Canal. You can eat plenty of oysters from Ketchikan to Sausalito. But the farm out in Hamma Hamma is a one of a kind place. They serve their oysters in all the good ways. You can kick back with a tall boy of Rainier beer and feast on oysters pulled from the tidal flats, stretching out right in front of your table.

Acme Oyster House is probably the biggest name in oysters when you’re strolling the streets of NOLA. And they make a mean plate of fried oysters. J’s Seafood Dock is another place popular with the wanderers. If you’re airbnb-ing it or crashing with a group of friend and family, head down to the ports and hit up the wholesalers. You can buy a sack of 50-100 oysters for wholesale prices, then put on a feast.

Across the pond on the Emerald Isle is a nice little hamlet called Galway. They host the Galway Oyster Festival. It’s a three day event for all things oysters, beer, oysters, and whiskey, and even more oysters! Really any excuse to go to Ireland is a valid one. But going there for an oyster festival might be the best excuse there is.