For his book,The Big Oyster: History on the Half Shell (Ballantine), historian and James Beard Award-winning author Mark Kurlansky shucked the delicious, often misunderstood bivalve's shell to get to the meat of things. He gave us some highlights.
That Reputation: We owe the idea of oysters as an aphrodisiac to the Romans, who served the mollusks at orgies perhaps because they call to mind a certain part of the female anatomy. Centuries later there's little science to support any sex benefits.

Live Bait: If they're properly opened—by disabling the ligament that keeps the shell closed—raw oysters go down our gullets with a working brain, stomach, liver, intestines, and beating heart.

Eat Up, Topeka: A live oyster ten days out of the ocean is just as fresh as a live one a day out. And forget the old wives' tale that they're best in months containing the letter r (September to April, their natural hibernation season). Today oysters are cultivated, so good ones are available throughout the year.

A Matter of Taste: Oysters are like vineyard grapes—their characteristics are determined by where they grow. The colder the water, the slower the oysters grow and the smaller they are at harvest. The more nutrient-rich the water, the stronger the flavor. So Gulf oysters are big, fairly bland, and best eaten with cocktail sauce. Wellfleets (from Massachusetts) need just a drop of lemon to taste like the reduced essence of the North Atlantic.

The Big Oyster: In the 18th and 19th centuries, New York was a leading American city for alcohol consumption, prostitution, and oyster production. At least one thing has changed: After years of pollution, the last Big Apple oyster bed was closed in 1927.


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