I keep a small pile of fused oyster shells on my fireplace mantel. They are bleached from hundreds (thousands?) of years of sun exposure, chipped from their brackish home by hands that have since turned to dust. I imagine the way the oysters tasted to the man or woman who walked the same shores I walk now. I wonder if in eating the soft briny flesh of the oyster, they had in mind some approximation of the feeling Ernest Hemingway would describe in A Moveable Feast centuries and worlds away from the ones who used to call the Gulf Coast home:
As I ate the oysters with their strong taste of the sea and their faint metallic taste that the cold white wine washed away, leaving only the sea taste and the succulent texture, and as I drank their cold liquid from each shell and washed it down with the crisp taste of the wine, I lost the empty feeling and began to be happy and to make plans.
Oysters aren’t unique to the Gulf, of course. They can be found the world over, though not nearly to the extent of 1,000 or even 100 years ago. Though they resemble breathing rocks more than crabs or mullet, they are surprisingly sensitive. Large fluctuations in salinity can wreak havoc — too much freshwater kills the oysters, while a high level of salinity encourages the proliferation of the predator oyster drill in places like the Gulf Coast. Issues like ocean acidification that weren’t on the radar 100 years ago now require our thoughtful consideration if we are to preserve this ancient food source. Already scientists have linked changes in ocean chemistry to deaths of oyster larvae in the Pacific Northwest. For critters whose only modes of transport are the lazy drift of currents in the larval stage and the wrenching upward motion out of the sea and onto our dinner plate, every change in the status quo, from oil spills to floods to ocean acidification, is cause for concern.
Oysters are living sculptures of sustenance and shelter and construction material. They also filter pollution from the water, and their reefs help break down wave energy and protect shorelines. As far back as human memory can reach, they’ve always been here, welcoming any human or animal with a hunger and the right tools to pry open the shell to partake, tying us to those who came to the shore before us to enjoy its bounty. It’s up to us to protect and preserve the reefs we rely on so that we aren’t the last generations to benefit from all the oyster provides.