Oyster Appellations Return to the Gulf Coast

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More than a century ago, there wasn't any such thing as a "gulf oyster." Oysters were offered under specific place names -- a tradition revived this weekend at the first Foodways Texas symposium in Galveston.

The program wasn't devoted entirely to oysters: Kelly Yandell, one of a few Dallas food enthusiasts in attendance, has posted a comprehensive wrap-up over at her blog, The Meaning of Pie. But most everyone agreed the highlight of the weekend came when the Gulf's top oyster producers gathered at Gaido's to shuck heaps of oysters from a dozen different reefs.

Symposium goers were allowed to slurp their way up and down the line, evaluating the salinity of Pepper Grove oysters; rating the creaminess of Todd's Dump oysters and marveling at the various sizes, cup shapes and shell textures represented by oysters from Elmgrove, Hanna's Reef and Lavaca Bay.

The movement to restore geographical integrity to Gulf oysters is considered so momentous within the industry that oyster producers from other states insisted on being included too. As an organization devoted to celebrating food -- which is pretty much synonymous with never turning down free oysters -- Foodways Texas welcomed bivalve contributions from Louisiana, Florida and Alabama.

None of the oysters emerged as a clear favorite. But the fantastic buffet sparked plenty of conversation, which is part of the rationale for reinstituting appellations.

"It makes the oyster more interesting," explained seafood marketing consultant Jon Rowley, who's credited with transforming a humble tinned fish into Copper River salmon, now sold for about $30 a pound. "It adds to the romance."

Rowley's worked extensively with oyster producers and restaurant owners in the Pacific Northwest to emphasize oyster sourcing, a move that's boosted West Coast oyster prices nationwide. Texas food writer Robb Walsh has tried to rile up Gulf oystermen with their success stories.

"Just for fun, we did something kind of goofy," Walsh says, recalling when he presented puny Hama Hama and Hog Island oysters to a roomful of astounded Gulf oyster producers. "We said these oysters are selling for four times as much as Gulf oysters, so they must be four times better than yours."

In the face of consumer anxieties spurred by vibrio scares and last summer's BP oil spill, Walsh believes appellations could be a boon to a troubled industry. But not every producer to ready to abandon the model that's long defined the Gulf oyster industry.

"We're known for good, cheap oysters," says John Tesvich of Ameripure Oysters in Louisiana. "Is the public open to this?"

And Bill Walton of Auburn University's Shellfish Lab wondered whether consumers are most interested in reefs, or if producers should instead appeal to serious eaters by focusing on how their oysters are harvested.

Supporters of Gulf appellations say the use of place names shouldn't preclude selling cheaper oysters by the dozen or finding other ways to market oysters. But as tasting organizer Jim Gossen of Louisiana Foods reminded the symposium crowd, it could allow Gulf oystermen to finally put their product in "fancy boxes" and charge accordingly.

"Two calls today wanting to set up oyster bars by Gulf appellations!," Gossen reported in a tweet this morning. "Foodways Texas Oyster Tasting is working..."

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