Is there an oyster season?
When I tell others that I absolutely love eating raw oysters at any occasion and at any time of year, my revelation is often met with some form of the following question: “Aren’t you only supposed to eat oysters in months that have an R in their name?” At face value, this appears to be an innocent question. However, I have learned through experience that the situation is more complicated than that. Much more complicated in fact.
This apparent question is often not an innocent question at all. Rather it is a semi-cloaked statement intended to convey a lack of comfort with the health risks of eating oysters or a perception that eating raw oysters is somehow disgusting. These passive aggressive statement makers are a complicated group. Sometimes their sentiments are a simple case of ignorance where they have formed an uneducated opinion that has never been tested. Other times they are true blooded oyster haters whose steel-like opinions have been hardened by fire. I find this somewhat ironic given that I often learn that most of these oyster haters have never eaten a raw oyster. This group is a tangled mess for sure, influenced by tidbits of ancient folklore, hearsay, and often a dash of nervous Anglo-Saxon like prudishness. I can almost hear the suburban coffee klatsch whispering now: “Did you hear that Martha saw Nancy eating a plate of raw oysters last weekend?” I can just hear the reaction now in pre-pubescent like squeals while hunched over the corner table at Applebee’s: “Ew, yuck. How gross! Fried, maybe, but raw? No way!”
This group reminds me of the pervasive American sentiment towards wine prior to the 1990s. Americans commonly turned up their noses at wine unless it was a sugary white Zinfandel that came out of a Franzia box. I have news for this group. Oysters were once an integral part of American history and its diet. In fact, your great grandparents probably ate oysters in abundance as they were a staple of the American meal and incorporated into countless recipes. At one time, no Thanksgiving Day turkey was complete unless it was crammed with oyster stuffing. Unfortunately the demise of the oysters and its estuarine habitat in the last century has nearly erased the oyster from the collective American consciousness. Oysters were once a cheap, everyday food source eaten by all classes. Sadly, the oyster is now generally reserved as a delicacy for special occasions. Only foodies and the well to do can afford to eat these tasty bivalves on a regular basis.
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 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, 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.