While the Mississippi coastline may be small compared to that of neighboring states, oyster harvesting accounts for a significant portion of the state’s seafood industry, and oysters figure prominently in the local diet. Along with shrimp and blue crab, oysters are the most widely harvested seafood in the state. While shrimp and crabs are considered shellfish, oysters are actually bivalve mollusks with two shell valves hinged at one end and a single muscle attaching the shells at the other end.
Archaeological evidence shows that humans have cultivated and farmed oysters for centuries. Naturally grown oysters are almost nonexistent today, but seeding programs using existing oyster beds have created a successful and healthy industry. Young oysters (spats) are used to seed the beds. An oyster requires about three years to mature. During that period the seed oysters may be transplanted several times to waters of varying salinity and food supply to stimulate growth. Oysters filter their food as water passes through their shells. Thus, water temperature, salinity, mineral content, and biotoxins can affect the oyster’s taste and health.
Crassostrea virginica (Eastern or American oyster) is one of the four major species of oysters and is found along the Atlantic seaboard and the Gulf of Mexico, including Mississippi. The state Department of Marine Resources (DMR) manages the state’s natural oyster reefs, and the overwhelming majority of the state’s commercially harvested oysters come from the reefs in the western Mississippi Sound. Mississippi oyster-processing plants accept catches from other states because in-state landings are not enough to sustain operations.
Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and the Deepwater Horizon oil spill of 2010 decimated Mississippi’s oyster industry by more than 80 percent. For example, in 2004, fishermen harvested nearly a half million sacks of oysters from Mississippi’s coastal waters. In 2014 that number was just over 78,000 sacks. Katrina alone damaged 80–90 percent of the near and offshore reefs, breaking them, moving them, and covering them in debris and silt. Larval oysters need a hard surface on which to attach to begin the growth process. This surface, or cultch material, is often made of recycled oyster shells. The DMR’s “shell planting” project, which required depositing recycled shells on existing reefs, was the first step in restoring the damaged environment.
Those familiar with oysters know the old adage that they should be eaten only in months containing the letter R. This advice resulted in part from the possibility of spoilage in warmer temperatures (late spring and summer months). In addition, Vibrio vulnificus, an extremely virulent marine bacterium, becomes dormant in cold weather and thus poses much less of a threat. Further, oysters just taste better during the colder months: during the spring and summer, as oysters prepare to spawn, they become fatty and less flavorful.
Now, of course, oysters are available year-round thanks to refrigeration and a number of postharvest processing technologies. Individual quick-freeze, high hydrostatic pressure, and heat-cool pasteurization are the most commonly used techniques for bringing raw oysters to market. While raw oysters may be dangerous for certain at-risk groups (especially diabetics and those with depressed immune systems), oysters offer a number of health benefits. They are a good source of calcium, iron, B12, and zinc. They also have a well-established if not completely accurate reputation as an aphrodisiac.
Live oysters are available for sale by the dozen, half bushel, or bushel (approximately ten dozen). Shucked (removed from the shell) oysters are sold by weight, volume, or count and are either frozen or canned or in plastic containers. The best way to shuck is with an oyster knife, which has a strong steel blade designed for prying open the hinged end of the shell. Steaming them for a few seconds can ease the opening process because the heat softens the muscle.
Oysters are delicious prepared in many different ways—raw on the half shell, with a lemon wedge, or with a bit of hot sauce. The DMR published a cookbook, Mississippi Oyster Recipes, featuring cooking suggestions developed with the Gulf and South Atlantic States Fisheries Foundation to increase consumer awareness, consumption, and sales of oyster products. The cookbook includes recipes that push the gastronomical limits. Along with oyster cornbread dressing and oyster soup, more adventurous cooks can try their hands at pepper and pineapple oyster stew or tofu spinach oyster dip. Like its saltwater neighbor, shrimp, oysters are a staple item at most Coast restaurants, served in soup, on po’boys, atop salads, or as part of bountiful seafood platters.
The famed dishes oysters Rockefeller and oysters Bienville created in New Orleans are also available on the Mississippi Coast. Fried oysters, oyster dressing, oyster pie, smoked oysters, and oyster shooters are but a few other ways to serve them. Another is what many consider a classic Mississippi seven-course meal: a half dozen on the half shell and a Barq’s Root Beer.
- M. F. K. Fisher, Consider the Oyster (1988)
- Mississippi Department of Marine Resources website, www.dmr.state.ms.us
- National Marine Fisheries Service website, www.st.nmfs.gov
- Joan Reardon, Oysters: A Culinary Celebration with 185 Recipes (2004)