The subject of oysters in New Orleans is a highly emotional one.
For starters…among the many passionate eating traditions in New Orleans, the eating of oysters is at or near the top of the list. There is no American city like this, maybe even no European city: oysters, oyster talk, oyster history, oyster iconography…oysters are everywhere in The Big Easy!
That’s a lot of positive emotion.
But then there’s the other side of the coin, emotionally. To many palates trained on northern-oyster-eating…the oysters of the Gulf don’t stack up, aesthetically! For these eaters, a trip to New Orleans may be about po’ boys, or muffalettas, or redfish, or gumbo, or shrimp, or a million other things…but not about oysters! New Orleans residents find this northern elitism offensive, but it exists nevertheless. Why do the northerners look down their noses at N’awlins oysters? Warm water is the key; the Gulf of Mexico ain’t Prince Edward Island, or Seattle, or the coast of Brittany. And it is true that colder northern water makes crisper, leaner, saltier oysters…and to the northerners, Gulf oysters have a flab to them, an unattractive plumpness, and not enough salt.
As if all this oyster-posturing were not poignant enough, we have another emotional issue these days front and center in New Orleans oysters: are they gonna kill you if you eat them raw? Will people ever want to eat Louisiana oysters again?
Let me hasten to say that this is not a new issue: there have always been concerns about the healthfulness of Gulf oysters. There is an insidious type of bacteria called vibrio vulnificus that can live in brackish waters anywhere; the Gulf is a favorite haven. We’ve long known that if you eat raw oysters from vibrio vulnificus-infested waters, you may have eaten your last oysters; especially for the immunity-compromised (in any way), the death rate is about 50% once vibrio vulnificus gets in your bloodstream.
What’s new right now are the putatively lingering effects of the 2010 BP oil spill in the Gulf. Some studies report that the presence of oil in the Gulf water increases the incidence of vibrio vulnificus…and one particularly scary sheet I read on the plane to New Orleans claimed that vibrio vulnificus deaths are up 40% since the spill.
I rode into this oyster stew last week, looking for answers, not yet ready to make my decision.
Let me ‘splain first how I’ve always felt about oysters in New Orleans.
I am PRO New Orleans oysters…with a few provisos.
Though I am one of those sniveling northern oyster snobs–my idea of heaven is oysters in northern France in the winter—I do look forward to standing at oyster bars in New Orleans throwing back raw ones, as long as the weather is cool (I NEVER do this in summer!). I find good Gulf oysters to be plump, yes, but not creamy-fatty (the oyster condition I especially hate!) Though not as tight and crunchy as northern oysters, Gulf oysters do have chew to them, enough to make me happy. And the salt ratio is not as low as some say; in a good Gulf oyster, a fair amount of salt combines with a subtle sweetness to make a pleasing flavor blend. I should point out that I always think I’m improving things by throwing a little green Tabasco on my raw Gulf oysters (though now I’m using my own Jamaican Lime Chile Extract, which is even better!). The point is: I never put anything on French oysters, including lemon (the “sauce,” to me, is Chablis!). What does that tell ya?
Despite this modicum of respect I have for Gulf oysters raw…I gotta say that there ain’t nothing like a Gulf oyster cooked! Or let me put it this way: cooking a Fine de Claire #3 in Paris in January would be a sorry waste of a great bite. But frying a Gulf oyster anytime is an ennoblement!
So…against all of these backgrounds…including the vibrio vulnificus fear…I took my usual first step when I got to New Orleans last week: I went directly over to the Acme Oyster House at 4:30 PM, soon after I landed. Unless it’s summer, I ALWAYS head right over to the Acme Oyster House. I just don’t feel like I’m in town until I get there! But you have to get there at 4:30 PM; at 5 PM, there’s an ugly line separating you from your oysters!
The other thing I love about Acme, other than oysters…is the atmosphere! Garish neon lights, commercial signs and posters, big crowd gettin’ the party started…these are great ways to kick off a N’Awlins adventure.
And then there’s the oysters.
Immediately to the right, past the door, is the oyster-opening bar…so thick with history, it might be valid to squeeze a lemon on it.
So I got past the line…but I was still uncertain about what I was going to eat. This was late October, normally a raw oyster month for me at Acme…but…reminders of “the troubles” hung everywhere.
My plan was twofold:
1) Talk to the oystermen. Talk to the customers. My New Orleans friends call me crazy to worry about oyster contamination. I wanted to see if the people in “The House” agreed with them.
2) In case my inner coward won the day, I was ready to do what I rarely do at Acme: look for cooked oyster alternatives…so that I…and you!…could still have a great time at this place when in New Orleans.
I surveyed the field. People were eating raw oysters everywhere, locals and visitors. I invaded the counter space of one nattily-dressed businessman from Maryland who had a dozen huge raw oysters in front of him. I asked if he was worried about oyster taint. “Been in New Orleans for four days,” he said, “and have had raw oysters like these every day at Acme. These are the best oysters I’ve ever had…and I feel great.” Well, there’s anecdotal import in his words: onset is rapid if you’ve ingested the bacteria, and, if you’re gonna die, it’ll happen in two days.
As some of my New Orleans friends said about the putative 40% rise in oyster-related deaths: “Sure, 5 people with compromised immunity systems die every year from oysters…last year 7 died. 15 million pounds of oysters a year are normally taken from the Gulf. If you’re gonna worry about your odds…good luck crossing the street in the French Quarter!”
So I went to the oystermen at Acme…whom I knew would be prejudiced…but I needed to find out if they were showing any caution at all.
I asked Edward Barnes, the rising shucker star, if the reports about oyster danger are well-founded. “Oh man,” he said…”the people saying bad things about our oysters are just jealous!”
Then I took it to the oyster magistrate, Hollywood Broadway, whose reaction was not far off. Are these reports true?
“You have to ask someone who knows,” he said.
He continued, shucking while he ranted. “These people don’t know what they’re talking about. The major part of the spill was closer to Florida…and I’m not saying you should eat Florida oysters! But our spot is safe. In fact, they stop eating oysters in Florida in the summer…but not here. The mud near New Orleans keeps the oysters cold, so we eat oysters right through the summer! After the spill, we did not stop serving. The only time we stop serving is right after a hurricane, when the water is whipped up and the oysters are hard to harvest.”
Well…it wasn’t a scientific analysis…but…based on the passion of a veteran, and on the passion of the eaters, and on my response to a coupla three Abita Ambers…and on how great the oysters looked (though you cannot see vibrio vulnificus)…I took the frickin’ plunge.
That was last week, and I did not die.
However, I was still cognizant of the fact that others might not be as courageous (or stupid!) as I.
So I forged ahead, into oyster realms that I’d never before approached at Acme.
I ordered a po’ boy that was a mix of fried oysters and fried shrimp—the Fried Peace Maker Po’ Boy, served with a Tabasco-infused mayonnaise—and it was good, brother (though not the best po’ boy in New Orleans). Would it alone bring me into Acme if I was swearing off raw oysters? No.
But the next cooked oyster dish would.
Now, it’s a funny thing about this oyster dish. I’ve been to New Orleans many times, over many decades…and, such was my perennial passion for the raw boys…that I had never, ever tasted chargrilled oysters. Oh my! I didn’t know what I was missing! I will never venture there again without ordering some!
The ones at Acme are a good starter version. They are made with Romanio cheese, covered with a garlic butter, and served with toasted bread for dunking. The cheese here is quite strong, a real salty lagniappe on top of moderately salty oysters. It works well enough.
But now I was interested. Engaged, even. I began my usual detective work so I could taste New Orleans’ best version of the dish before gettin’ out of Dodge.
And I think I found it!
Turns out that the dish was invented not too long ago: 1993, to be precise—at a restaurant in nearby Metairie called Drago’s, which originally opened in 1969 under the ownership of the Serbian Cvitanovich family. Twenty-four years later, second-generation Tommy Cvitanovich starting playing around with a garlic-and-butter sauce to put on oysters. This led to a dusting of cheese, which led to a new way of cooking them…on the grill! The dish was a huge success, and, today, it is one of the staple dishes of New Orleans.
I didn’t hike out to Metairie…because I was told that the version at Drago’s in-town restaurant, at the Hilton Hotel, was just as good.
After the buttered and cheesed oysters are placed on the grill…the Drago’s difference hits.
The chef liberally…and I mean liberally!…douses the collection of oysters with more garlic-butter, spilling it even between the oysters!…which instantly creates an inferno around and above the oysters. Next thing you know, they’re on your plate…
…though you may not notice at first the char all around until they cool down a bit.
That is the key to this version, which is probably the best version in New Orleans. The taste of grill that suffuses the oysters is amazing. And there’s even a taste beyond that…a meaty, beefy taste…probably caused by the steak-and-hamburger drippings that must have kissed the same fire at the grill. Wow! Add to that the best taste of oyster in any of the versions I tried; all of the other places feature a BIG cheese taste (Parmesan at some places, Romano at others)…but the subtle taste of cheese here (a Parmesan-Romano blend, Drago’s says), not only lets the oyster itself come through better, it seems to provoke the oyster flavor.
Well, it’s shells-up on this New Orleans visit…but I doubt I’ll ever return, whether I’m ready for raw oysters or not…without stopping in at Drago’s for a couple dozen!!!
Photos Via: David Rosengarten and Wally Gobetz