Oysters are available year-round, but there’s something about summer that brings out the oyster fiend in folks, as raw bars and regular bars fill up with oval platters of half-shells on ice. You can taste your way around Rhode Island, traveling by tongue to sample Moonstones, Matunucks, Salt Ponds, Sakonnets, Rome Points, Watch Hills, Poppasquashes, Winnapaugs, Ninigrets and Wild Goose among the nearly three-dozen Rhody-born-and-bred varieties.
Savoring an oyster is as much a geographic as culinary experience. As author Rowan Jacobsen said in his guide to oyster eating, “A Geography of Oysters,” all oysters have a quality of “somewhereness.” Their sense of place is inherent in the flavors that emerge beyond their salinity. In other words, they taste like where they come from.
An excerpt from Jacobsen’s book featured the following note about Moonstones:
Point Judith Pond, Rhode Island
Some of the most savory oysters in the world come from a geographical arc running from the eastern end of Long Island, along the ragged Rhode Island coast, to Block Island, Cuttyhunk and Martha’s Vineyard: the line marking the terminal moraine of the most recent glacier. Along that arc, mineral-rich waters produce salty oysters with unparalleled stone and iron flavors, of which Moonstone is the reigning king.
While sampling oysters at McCormick & Schmick’s in Providence a couple of years ago, a friend and I tried a Rhode Island-grown oyster. Her description – “Tastes like swimming in the bay in summertime” – was perfect. Since I’ve been making notes on the subject, I’ve had oysters that tasted buttery, fruity, extra salty, or hinting of citrus, wine, even petrol. One good thing: I’ve never met an oyster that tasted like chicken.
In Louisiana, Creole recipes feature a lot of oyster dishes that are fried or baked, which seems like a waste of an oyster, although the dishes themselves are delicious, so maybe a few can be sacrificed in the pursuit of gastronomic bliss. The sad news for folks on the Gulf Coast is that their oysters are drowning in oil. One beloved New Orleans restaurant, called Charlie’s Seafood, was forced to change its menu to survive, and according to a recent Miami Herald article, the chef isn’t exactly happy about it.
“Charlie’s is a place that celebrates Louisiana seafood and here I am frying calamari from Rhode Island,” says [Frank] Brigsten, an award-winning chef who also owns his eponymously named contemporary Creole cuisine restaurant uptown. “I feel like somehow I am betraying my customers by not giving them oysters. I feel like I am wearing someone else’s clothes.”
As great as Rhody seafood is – and between the fish and the shellfish, we enjoy some of the best in the world – it’s hard not to feel devastated for those who live along our Southern coast. Just as Rhode Islanders wouldn’t be Rhode Islanders without our intimate relationship to Narragansett Bay – a place that serves alternatively as playground, buffet and spiritual companion – coastal residents of Louisiana and Texas feel the same way about the Gulf. So tonight, with every Rhode Island oyster that slides down my gullet, I’ll thank the bay and pray to the oyster gods to keep them coming. And, if any greedy, incompetent corporate types start poking around our sea beds, release the giant clams…
What flavors might you expect to taste in a Rhode Island-grown oyster?