Chesapeake oysters- you pretty much know all about them, right? As in, they taste amazing with a dash of hot sauce and a cold IPA to wash them down, and you know how to signal the waiter for another dozen.
This is indeed pretty essential knowledge. Oysters are first and foremost a source of briny bliss. But they are so much more than that! Oysters are a connection with the Bay's environment, its culture, and its long traditions. They are a food, sure, but they also have sparked conflicts, supported an enormous economy, and changed the Bay's ecosystem in incredible ways- all things that even oyster connoisseurs might not be aware of.
So read on to see how savvy an oyster lover you are- and even experts might get a few morsels of information to share around the shucking table this Thanksgiving.
1. They are the same species as oysters from New York, Maine, Florida and Louisiana.
That’s right! Crassostrea virginica, the eastern Oyster is not only native to the Chesapeake Bay but way beyond- all the way up to Nova Scotia and down to the Gulf of Mexico. They have regional flavor distinctions, but every native oyster on the Eastern Seaboard is exactly the same biologically.
2. There are male oysters and female oysters, but they can swap genders.
To increase their chances of successfully spawning, oysters have a unique adaptation— they can change sex at will. Described by oyster biologist Trevor Kincaid as, “Strictly a case of Dr. Jekyll and Mrs. Hyde,” this versatility means the oyster population always a balance of enough males and females to ensure a healthy spat set. Most oysters start their lives out as males but become females by their second year.
3. Baby oysters are called ‘spat.’
While it sounds like the past tense of ‘to spit,’ ‘spat’ refers to a juvenile oyster that has grown out of its free-floating larval state, when it is known as a ‘veliger.’ Once veligers develop a small ‘foot’ and attach to a hard surface (normally the shell of another oyster), they are then known as spat, and won’t move again for the rest of their lives.
4. Chesapeake oysters produce pearls.
Almost all oyster species do. But typically, pearls— which are the product of an oyster coating an irritant with layers of nacre— look like the environment surrounding the pearl-producing oyster. In the brackish and algae-rich waters of the Chesapeake Bay, usually that means pearls that are brownish, greenish or just plain ugly.
5. People killed each other in order to get access to Chesapeake oysters.
In the late 1800’s, technology and transportation combined with an increase in demand lead to the great Chesapeake Oyster Boom. This period, which only lasted 20 years, inspired thousands of men to take to the water to harvest Bay oysters. These newcomers were usually on large sailboats known as skipjacks that used large tools to harvest millions of oysters. So much money was a stake that lawlessness prevailed— skipjack captains and crew got in gun battles with the regulating state Oyster Navy, took shots at oyster harvesters using old-fashioned attached rakes (called ‘tongs’), and the oyster tongers armed themselves and fought back. It was almost total anarchy that only ended when the oyster population started to decline at the turn of the century.
6. Raw oysters are often alive when you eat them.
If they’re fresh, they might still even have a heartbeat. Raw oysters are living organisms, and when kept cold, they can survive for several days out of the water. If the idea of eating something alive bothers you, just steam them instead. Once the shells pop open, you know they’re ready to eat.
7. Chesapeake oysters grow in reefs.
Unlike cartoons, oysters don’t really lie on their side in the sand. They grow attached to each other, one generation after another, ideally close to the top of the water. In this way over thousands of years, oysters made reefs miles wide and miles long. Before mass harvesting methods, oyster reefs were so enormous, they were actual impediments to navigation in the Chesapeake Bay. A Swiss visitor to the Chesapeake, Francis Louis Michel, remarked in 1702 that, “The abundance of oysters in incredible. There are whole banks of them so that ships must avoid them. A sloop, which was to land us at Kingscreek, struck an oyster bed, where we had to wait two hours for the tide.”
8. Oysters have clear blood.
The liquid inside an oyster, known as the oyster’s ‘liquor,’ is savored by oyster aficionados, who relish its briny taste. However, this is often a mixture of water and, when shucked, an oyster’s blood, which is totally clear. So if knowing they were alive didn’t kill your appetite, this might.
9. Chesapeake farmed oysters are most likely sterile.
Known as ‘triploids,’ these sterile oysters have three chromosomes instead of the two found in normally-reproducing oysters. Triploids are used in Bay oyster farms— especially in Virginia— because they are more disease-resistant. Two oyster parasites that are harmless to humans but deadly to oysters, MSX and Dermo, have ravaged wild oyster populations in the Chesapeake. Unlike reproducing or ‘diploid’ oysters, triploids never experience the vulnerable weak period after spawning. Instead, they grow faster and make it to market before impacted by disease. For this reason, many oyster farms now use solely triploid oysters— better living through science!
10. There is not just one kind of Chesapeake oysters.
Thanks to the growth of aquaculture, Chesapeake Bay oysters are now being produced by hundreds of oyster farms, each with its own brand of oysters. From Shooting Points to Pleasure House, each brand can offer up a slightly different tasting experience. Known as an oyster’s ‘merroir’ (like wine’s ‘terroir’) this distillation of an oyster’s environment can vary greatly depending on the location of the oyster farm— an oyster grown in a saltier part of the Bay might be very briny, while an oyster from north on the Bay might be much sweeter. Oysters that develop near marshes might take on an earthy note, while oysters grown near a cliff or rocky shoreline might have a more mineral finish. Try them all and find your favorite!