Fresh oysters must be alive just before consumption. To test, tap any open oyster on the shell – if it closes up it’s safe to eat. Oysters which are open and unresponsive are dead, and must be discarded. Some dead oysters, or oyster shells which are full of sand, may also be closed, but they will make a distinctive noise when tapped: they are known as clackers for this reason.
Opening (or “shucking”) oysters requires skill, for live oysters, outside of the water, tend to shut themselves tightly. The most common method for opening oysters is to use a special knife (called an oyster knife, a variant of a shucking knife), with a short and thick blade about 2 inches long. The blade needs to be inserted at the hinge in the rear of the shell, then twisted.
Oysters are protandric; during their first year they spawn as males by releasing sperm into the water. As they grow over the next two or three years and develop greater energy reserves, they spawn as females by releasing eggs.
Jonathan Swift famously remarked “He was a bold man that first ate an oyster”but evidence of oyster consumption goes back into prehistory. Oyster middens, which are piles of discarded shells, are found worldwide. The midden in Namu, British Columbia, is over 9 meters deep and testifies to over 10,000 years of continuous human oyster consumption.
If you see “Prairie Oysters” on the menu, be warned – these are a North American culinary name for buffalo or bull testicles. They are usually peeled, coated in flour, pepper and salt, sometimes pounded flat, then deep-fried. This delicacy is most often served as an appetizer. A few other descriptive terms, such as “cowboy caviar,” “Montana tendergroins,” or “swinging beef,” may be used.
Oysters are sometimes cited as an aphrodisiac, but this is debatable. A team of American and Italian researchers who analyzed bivalves did find they were rich in rare amino acids that trigger increased levels of sex hormones. Also oysters have a high zinc content, a mineral that aids in the production of testosterone. Alternatively, the oyster’s erotic reputation may only be due to its soft, moist texture and appearance. It is said Casanova liked start a meal with a dozen oysters.
An oyster produces a pearl when foreign material becomes trapped inside the shell. The oyster responds to the irritation by producing nacre, a combination of calcium and protein. The nacre coats the foreign material and over time produces a pearl.
Folklore says that oysters should be eaten only in months with “r’s” in them—September, October, etc. The notion that oysters should not be eaten in “r”-less months—that is, months that occur during warm weather—may have started in the days when oysters where shipped without adequate refrigeration and could spoil. But today all that has changed and we can enjoy oysters twelve months a year – especially at the Oyster Box, because the hotel has its own beds, so you can be totally sure they’ll be absolutely fresh.