When asked if he felt bad killing the hundreds of oysters he serves daily at the popular Brophy Brothers Seafood Restaurant in Santa Barbara 28 year-old Andy Vogel, an employee for ten years, said the thought hadn't crossed his mind.
Oysters are not just something made into a shooter and served at a bar. Scientifically they can change sexes multiple times during their life, historically they have been consumed since prehistoric times, commercially they produce a tiny and valuable thing called a pearl and nutritionally they are one of the healthiest foods around.
In the beginning of his career at Brophy Brothers Vogel said acquiring various nicks and cuts while learning how to shuck an oyster was common. Luckily, he has never been injured badly which is good since the hundreds of oysters sold daily are lucrative.
The Romans would import them from England, place the organisms rich in zinc, iron, calcium and vitamin A, in salt water pools and fatten them up by feeding them wine and pastries, according to Peggy Trowbridge Filippone from About.com
Pairing oysters with wine is a popular way for people to enjoy the aphrodisiac. Just like with a bad bottle of wine, getting a bad oyster is a huge turn off.
At Brophy Brothers, Vogel said part of his job involves avoiding bad oysters at all costs. "Oysters are in season year round, but sometimes I get a bad batch and end up throwing out a lot." This can happen anytime contrary to the myth that oysters can only be eaten in months that have the letter "r" in them.
Especially when the restaurant is extra-busy Vogel says taking the time to examine if a questionable oyster is bad is not something there is time for. "You don't want to be messing around." Vogel said that recently the East Coast, where the seafood provider gets most of its oysters, has been hot, making the mollusk inside abnormally small compared to normal.
In the U.S. the norm is consuming oysters by the half-dozen, but in Europe the style is a straight dozen.
The smorgasbord of ways oysters are served has changed quite a bit from the days of Abraham Lincoln who would throw "oyster parties" where nothing but oysters were served. During Lincolns time oysters were more plentiful than they are now, enjoyed by rich and common people alike.
However, some aspects associated with the oyster have always been associated with luxury. The pearl makes the the smorgasbord of oyster treats a feast for the eyes as well as the taste-buds. Edible oysters do not produce gem-quality pearls. That job falls to the pearl oyster which is in the genus pinctada.
Originally a few pearls were harvested with great effort from tons and tons of pearl oysters. In the 19th century, however, cultured pearls were invented making it possible for a pearl farmer to harvest a pearl from almost every one of his or her oysters.
The process of culturing pearls was patented by Kokichi Mikimoto and the Mikimoto company continues to make pearl jewelry to this day.
While the rest of the world is consuming the mollusks or their pearls, at the Department of Environment and Natural Resources in North Carolina enthusiasts are working on sustaining the historical creatures through recycling used shells.
The NCDMF runs an oyster shell recycling program. By placing mounds of oysters in brackish water free-floating organisms, including oysters at the beginning of their life will have something to attach to.
The NCDMF recycling project creates shelter for oysters and other organisms. This increases the oyster population and its function of keeping water clean by feeding on plankton and waterborne detritus.
Not everyone practices oyster shell recycling. "I looked into it with some people I work with," said Vogel. At least in California, "it turned out to be too much of a hassle compared to what you get out of it."
While the world is an oyster for some, the function of oysters is never ending. Ilene Polansky, who wrote several articles about oysters for Global Gourmet includes some innovative ways to make oysters into exotic dishes including pairings with goat cheese, sun-dried tomatoes and other more edgy recipes that may stir up thoughts of one quote by Jonathan Swift. "He was a bold man that first ate an oyster."