Updated: Jun 14, 2022
Mary Frances Kennedy (“MFK”) Fisher (1908-1992) was one of the 20th Century’s most beloved and highly regarded food writers. Among her 27 books, CONSIDER THE OYSTER (Duell, Sloan and Pierce, 1941) is one of her best known works, a short but exquisitely-written treatise on the most regal of bivalves. Along with the history of oyster-eating, their morphology, physiology, and life cycle, Ms. Fisher also addresses the age-old question of whether one must confine oyster consumption to the colder (“R”) months.
Fisher suggests that the “R” rule was foisted upon the oyster-eating public by the sea farmers who tended their estuary beds exactly as the Romans had beginning in 100 BC. The breeding season for oysters stretches from May through August, when their waters exceed 70ºF… and which, quite coincidentally, is the 4-month run of non-R months. A single female oyster produces some 20 million eggs in a given year, and since the oyster farmers needed to foster and preserve reproduction for the future, they were understandably loath to sacrifice tomorrow’s oyster population for today’s harvest.
And so, Fisher contends, the oyster farmers created an excuse to suspend harvesting in the “R” months, a wholesale fabrication that would endure for two and a half millennia– the proposition that oyster consumption in the months May through August poses a risk to one’s health.
MFK Fisher was not alone in examining this issue and the origins of this culinary taboo. Author Mark Kurlansky, in THE BIG OYSTER: HISTORY ON THE HALF SHELL (Random House, 2006) offers the following on pages 78-79:
“Although New Yorkers ate oysters all year long, it was believed that the oysters in the months without R’s– May, June, July, and August– were of inferior quality and so they waited for the better oysters to come in the fall. This is an ancient and somewhat mythological belief. In 1599, William Butler, a contemporary of Shakespeare, wrote, ‘It is unseasonable and unwholesome in all months that do not have R in them to eat oysters.’ The myth has an element of truth in the case of New York. Oysters take their cue to begin spawning when the water warms up, which is in May, and it is true that spawning oysters tend to be thin, translucent, and generally less appealing. Some argued that letting the beds rest during spawning season was a good conservation measure. Summer oysters are, however, perfectly healthy unless spoiled in the market by summer heat.”
And yet Fisher, Kurlansky, and Butler were preceded in this particular inquiry by two thousand years. The Roman statesman, lawyer, scholar, philosopher, and academic skeptic Marcus Tullius Cicero (106 BC – 43 BC) promulgated an explanation of the “R” Month prohibition, one quite different from all the others, in “de Oestris,” his treatise on oysters. (Please contact us immediately if you can find a direct translation of this. We’ve looked everywhere. –DannyM)
At the risk of getting sued or at least provoking a Cease & Desist Order, I can do no better than repost in its entirety this fabulous examination of this issue by Michael C. Hild on the company blog of ANDERSON’S NECK OYSTER COMPANY in Shacklefords, Virginia–
Oysters in R months
So getting back to the main topic, where did the adage of only eating oysters in the “R Months” originate? Ancient Rome is the answer. As you probably know, Romans loved their parties. Oysters were a great luxury, and they were served as a vivacious prelude to Roman feasts. The great Roman Chef Apicius is credited with finding a way to safely pack fresh oysters on their journey from the sea to the Emperor Trajan in Rome. So if oysters could be safely transported, why the aversion to oyster eating in the summer? The answer can be found by reading no other than the great works of Cicero himself.
Cicero was obsessed with finding out why the R Month myth was so pervasive in his exhaustive treatise “De Ostreis”. The practice of avoiding oysters in the non-R months had been ingrained in Roman culture for over 400 years. He was perplexed by this practice because at one time it was commonplace for the lower class to safely eat oysters in the city of Rome year round. Cicero found a quite simple explanation and he uncovered the straightforward, yet disgusting answer to the mystery. As is often the case with human nature, unabated greed is the answer to the riddle.
Because the freshest oysters could be packed and shipped inland where they would command top dollar, it is no surprise the best oysters found their way to Roman city markets and tables. These oysters were purchased in Rome year round. The lower class working Romans even ate oysters in the summer months with no iIl effects. However, the upper class Romans never ate oysters in months without an R as it was considered disgusting and unhealthy. But why the avoidance of the tasty bivalves by the wealthy Romans who could most easily afford the luxurious treats?
Well, just like today, wealthy Romans often went to the beach during the summer to what they called “watering places.” These Pompeiian excursionists feasted on oysters while staying at the hotels at the waterfront. However, as described before, the best and freshest oysters were packed and shipped to Rome where they commanded the highest prices. Only the oysters of poorest quality remained at the waterfront where they invariably aged and anyone in the know would avoid them at all cost.
That didn’t stop the beach hoteliers from trying to make a buck and sell these rancid oysters to their wealthy inland guests on their vacation stays. According to a 19th century New York Times article on Cicero’s oyster writings (Sadly, no longer available in NYT archives– DM) the taste of these oysters at the water were so bad that even in their best condition “it was impossible for the guest to tell by the taste whether the oysters eaten by him were fresh and wholesome or aged and unwholesome.” To make matters worse, the hotel owners would attempt to “freshen up their refuse oysters with sulphate of copper, a most objectionable condiment.” Unsurprisingly these wealthy Romans became violently sick when they ate oysters on their summer beach vacations. However, the lower class workers who could not afford summer trips to the beach were happily gorging away on the fresh oysters back in the city of Rome.
This summer beach sickness caused by greedy hoteliers was not understood until 400 years later due to Cicero’s detective work. But by that time the damage was already done and could not be unwound, even by the great Cicero. The summer oyster sickness was so feared that oyster eating was banned across the board in non-R months and incorporated into Roman law. This falsely constructed R Rule went viral so to speak and was passed down through the centuries as an inherited best practice. It even survived in various forms in 19th and 20th century American state laws. What would have been more helpful, would have been a ban on selling rancid oysters. The lawmakers should have demanded that oysters were safely packed and stored. However, at that time, the lawmakers did not know what the shady hoteliers were doing.
The Modern Oyster Season
In modern days, very strict refrigeration and oyster handling requirements are mandated by both State and Federal agencies, especially in the hot summer months. Regulators now understand this relationship and govern oyster harvesting and transportation practices with very specific safety precautions. As a result, you are more likely to win the lottery than you are to eat a bad oyster. But modern refrigeration and strict regulatory oversight can not fully eradicate pervasive urban legends, especially those that have been around since the times of Ancient Rome.
So the next time you hear someone mention the R rule for oysters, you are now fully equipped to mesmerize them with your vast knowledge of Cicero’s ancient writings and how he already debunked this urban oyster legend more than 2,000 years ago.
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It is noteworthy, I think, that Cicero, MFK Fisher, and Mark Kurlansky all conclude that yes, you can eat fresh, raw oysters year-round, even though they arrived at the same conclusion by intriguingly different paths of facts, suppositions, and/or reasoning. Either way, go ahead and enjoy them! If and when you do, you might be inclined to enhance them with a simple squeeze of lemon, or you might dab them with a little cocktail sauce– heavy on the horseradish. Or… you can opt for something more sophisticated than either– a sprinkle of mignonette sauce, which couldn’t be much easier to make. Just finely mince a couple of shallots and add them to a 50-50 mix of sherry vinegar and red wine vinegar along with a generous grind or two of pepper. Let it sit for a day in your fridge before using. (That’s MY recipe. You might also consider these.)
But raw is not the only way to eat oysters.
An informal yet wonderful snack perfect for Friday afternoon tea-time is smoked oysters straight from the can (via toothpick) with some fancy crackers and a nicely chilled bottle of Gruet Blanc de Blancs ($14.99 @ Lisa’s Liquor Barn)– a perfect start to an excitement-packed weekend.
Because oysters essentially come encased in their own cooking vessel, they can be cooked by any number of methods. We see them offered grilled, poached, fried, steamed, baked, you name it. “Consider the Oyster” contains a multitude of historically significant recipes, from basic oyster stew to Oysters Rockefeller.
Here is MY cooked oyster recipe, essentially a pastiche of several oyster recipes from CONSIDER THE OYSTER. You might think of it as oyster stew on the half-shell.
Since the name seems to be as yet unclaimed, We’ll call this…
1 Dozen good-looking live oysters
1 container shucked Chesapeake oysters
1 Bag Baby Spinach
1 Pint Heavy Cream
1 Stick (or more) Unsalted Butter, preferably high quality/high butterfat content
A small bunch of Leeks (3 or so)
1 large shallot
Champagne Vinegar (or white wine vinegar)
Dry unoaked white wine (Sauvignon Blanc, Riesling, Chablis, or Muscadet)
Dash of Pernod
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Oyster forks, oyster plates, oyster shells. The forks and plates await you on eBay.
The live oysters are required just for the shells, so buy them well ahead of time. Steam them until they open, then remove the oysters and discard the flat halves of the shells. You can dip these oysters in melted butter for a decadent snack; you can add them to your next bowl of chowder; or for that matter, you can feed them to your cat. Clean and dry the shells for later use. (Why not just use these oysters for this dish? Because for our purposes these oysters are too small. As you’ll see, these shells are roomy enough for oysters twice this size… like the plump, pre-shucked Chesapeakes we’ll be using. The result is a much more filling and satisfying dish.)
Pro Tip: Farmed oysters tend to have nicer-looking shells.
THE SPINACH AND LEEKS
You won’t be cooking them together, just simultaneously. Slice the white parts of the leeks crosswise about 1/8” thick. Gently simmer on low heat, covered, in just enough water with a splash of wine until quite soft. While that is happening, sauté the spinach and butter. Set the cooked leeks and spinach aside.
Sauce Beurre Blanc (white butter sauce) is a classic French sauce for seafood. It also works especially well with asparagus as a lighter but equally decadent alternative to hollandaise. Like hollandaise, it breaks easily and is therefore difficult to hold at an acceptable serving temperature. But unlike hollandaise, beurre blanc can benefit from a simple kitchen hack— adding the butter to a base of reduced cream. (A lot of fancy restaurants do this.) When you google “beurre blanc,” you’ll see recipes with and without cream. Click accordingly. To summarize, you cook the minced shallot in a bit of butter and then add the wine and vinegar. Cook it down until most of the liquid has evaporated, then add the cream. It will bubble and reduce; when it thickens significantly, whisk in the butter and add salt and pepper to taste. Add a few drops of Pernod liqueur, then hold the sauce in a saucepan with the burner off, stirring periodically.
THE SHELLS, AGAIN
Heat up the shells in a hot oven. This is no more complicated than it sounds. You can also steam them on your stovetop, or simply dip them in boiling water. Just get them hot.
Look for a container of “Chesapeake Standard Oysters” at your local seafood department. These are fabulously plump raw shucked oysters– unworthy of eating raw, yet perfect for cooking. They are far superior to pre-cooked oysters in a can, which I wouldn’t even feed to a pet. (They usually come from TCTMATCC– The Country That Makes All That Cheap Crap– and for all we know are not oysters at all, but rather… well, use your imagination.)
Empty the shucked oysters and their liquor into a small saucepan and gently cook the oysters until they fluff. Remove the oysters and set aside for a moment while you reduce the liquor and add it to the beurre blanc.
Add a generous tablespoon or so of kosher salt to each compartment of the oyster plate in order to stabilize each oyster shell. Nestle the hot shells atop the salt in each compartment. Add about a tong pinch of the spinach to each shell. Next come the oysters atop the spinach. Follow with a small pinch of leeks, and finally a scoop of the beurre blanc. If, at first bite, you adjudge the dish in need of salt, you need only reach beneath the shell for a pinch of the kosher flakes.
Optional— To elevate this dish a quantum leap higher, consider garnishing each oyster with a small scoop of American sturgeon caviar. But then this dish would become Oysters Andrea, for this is the exact dish with which I wooed my bride-to-be on our fourth date some 32 years after our third… and inspired her to propose to me a week later on our 5th.
I used to spout a half-serious dictum for pairing wine with oysters— Muscadet for lunch, Chablis for dinner… and Champagne for breakfast! Muscadet, a light and perky sipper from the mouth of France’s Loire, is perfect with most any seafood. Chablis is the dry and crisp version of Chardonnay from the northernmost and chilliest vineyards of Burgundy. Typically vinified without oak, it bears no resemblance to its fleshy and ripe Californian cousins. As for Champagne or sparkling wine, avoid pink and go for a pale brut or “brut sauvage” (completely sugarless.) The above-referenced Gruet Blanc de blancs is perfect.
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Do oysters, as widely rumored for time immemorial, act as some sort of sexual stimulant or aphrodisiac? The scientists say no, although they allow that the high zinc content of oysters doesn’t hurt. I am inclined to think that oysters– whether served raw or cooked– automatically betoken a special evening and all that naturally ensues. What else should one expect of the shared enjoyment of a rare treat, one simultaneously silky and rich, so elegantly and dramatically served in its own naturally-occurring crockery as it begs to be drowned in Champagne?
Get a freaking room.