Funny thing, an oyster bar opening up in the middle of May. Aren't we supposed to eat oysters only in months with an R in their names?
Nope. These days, any oyster you're served in a Bay Area restaurant should be safe and tasty. However, the R-month maxim, which I inherited from everyone from my mother to my last chef, isn't a total myth, for three reasons:
1. In the days before high-tech food storage and transportation practices allowed us to eat Hawaiian tuna in North Carolina and zucchini in December, summertime weather could cause seafood to spoil more quickly. If you're neurotic about a restaurant's oyster-storage practices, don't order them. But restaurants protect themselves, too. Each batch they buy comes with a certification tag listing the supplier, shipper, species, harvest site, and date of harvest, and state law requires them to keep the tags for ninety days. If your steamed mussels make you sick, county health detectives can trace the mollusks back through the supply chain to find out what happened.
2. Oysters harvested from the warm-water Gulf of Mexico may be contaminated with a bacterium called Vibrio vulnificus. When summertime heat brings the temperature of Gulf waters above 65 degrees, the potentially fatal bug proliferates. However, even the USDA advises that the microbe is primarily dangerous to people with liver disease, diabetes, and impaired immune systems -- so a healthy person is unlikely to suffer worse than a stomachache and diarrhea. Since homegrown oysters taste better anyway, most Bay Area restaurants don't serve raw Gulf oysters, and V. vulnificus isn't found in the cold waters of the Pacific Northwest. Our local bug, V. parahaemolyticus, shows up only when the weather is unseasonably warm, and isn't even as virulent as its cousin.
3. Oysters tend to taste different in the summer. When the water warms up, they spawn, converting most of their bodies into milt, or eggs. "They're softer, creamier, and less salty," says Mark Lusardi of "spawny" oysters. He's being generous -- others use words like "runny" and "bland." Again, the cold Pacific waters keep the northwestern breeding season short. Nevertheless, when spawning season comes around in a given region, Lusardi avoids buying shellfish from there until cooler waters prevail.
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