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Consider the Chesapeake Bay Oyster

During the Depression, oysters were so plentiful in the Chesapeake Bay area that people ate them three to four times a week.
Kendra Bailey Morris for NPR
During the Depression, oysters were so plentiful in the Chesapeake Bay area that people ate them three to four times a week.

The afternoon sun barely peeks out from behind rows of hand-built piers that line the shore of Cockrell's Creek in Reedville, Va., on the Chesapeake Bay. There, brackish creek waters gently slap against barnacle-encrusted fishing boats gently rising and falling with the tide.

It's oyster season, and Wendell Haynie, an 11th-generation Virginia waterman, recalls a time when Chesapeake Bay oysters were so plentiful that folks would eat them three to four times a week.

"This was during the Depression," he says as he leans back to orate, "and times were tight, but oysters were still a big thing. We used to catch a hundred bushels before lunchtime."

Haynie's mother, Fanny, would crush soda crackers with a rolling pin, then bread the oysters in a combination of crackers and egg wash and finally fry them in hot fat. Other than fried, he says, the only way to eat them was raw, "straight outta the shell."

Whether you choose to enjoy these briny creatures roasted with butter, floating atop a creamy bisque or straight up with a dash of Texas Pete, there's no doubt that in today's culinary world, oysters are still quite a "big thing."

Oysters can live up to 20 years and, except during their free-swimming larval stage, spend the majority of their time attached to rocks, shells or piers.

Like many invertebrates, oysters are hermaphroditic, and will change gender at least once during their lifetime, often starting as male and ending as female.

The Chesapeake oyster — sometimes called Chesapeake white gold — has a flavor and texture that begs connoisseurs to come back and shuck just a few more.

Salty and succulent, these oysters embody the word "delicacy." Gently unhinging one of these live creatures with an oyster knife reveals a larger-than-usual, juicy, gray body resting in a pool of precious liquor.

From here, it takes only a flick of the knife to loosen it from its shell. Then, down the throat it goes with such indescribable bliss that food writer M.F.K. Fisher, in Consider the Oyster, grappled with its ambiguity.

"An oyster," she wrote, "will taste like what the taster expects, which of course depends entirely on the taster."

The debate on how to best enjoy the oyster goes on. Southern purists prefer breading their oysters in cornmeal and then dipping them in lemon-spiked tartar sauce, while the more creative opt for Japanese panko crumbs and piquant aioli.

Champagne mignonette sauce and granita regularly grace oysters on the half shell, while seafood classics still live on in herbed oyster stuffings and creamy, bread-crumb topped oyster casseroles.

Whatever your oyster preference, one truth remains: Those of us who revere the oyster will do almost anything to get our hands on one, and when we do, we know just how we want it.

Back at Cockrell's Creek, I find myself standing among a pack of multigenerational watermen, who cherish their locally raised oysters in much the same way a sommelier treasures a rare Bordeaux. So I ask, "What's the best way to cook an oyster?"

Within seconds, shouts and playful arguments erupt: "Steamed with butter." "Roasted." "No, you always eat 'em fried in cracker meal." "What do you mean, butter? Who needs butter? You eat 'em straight up."

I have started a dispute that will, most likely, last long after the sun sets.

That's the beauty of these oysters. Much in the same way North Carolinians debate vinegar versus tomato when it comes to barbecue, local oyster purists aren't afraid to offer you their uncensored take on the best way to cook these briny bivalve delights.

So, the next time you're pondering what to make for dinner, take a moment to consider the Chesapeake Bay oyster.

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Kendra Bailey Morris