Aphrodite's Delight: The Oyster

by Bonnie North

According to ancient myth, Aphrodite, the Greek goddess of love and beauty, emerged from a giant oyster shell that rose up from the depths of the sea amidst a great churning of foam. No sooner was she ‘born” than she gave birth to her son, Eros. The Romans renamed her Venus and her son Cupid, but the words associated with their Grecian names, “aphrodisiac” and “erotic” are still with us, and ever since Grecian times the oyster has been linked with love, potency and passion.

Actually, the oyster itself has a most ambiguous sexuality. They are hermaphroditic, and will change gender at least once during their lifetime, usually starting as male and ending as female!

Warming water temperatures prompt a few initial oysters to spawn. This triggers a chain reaction of spawning throughout the oyster bed, which clouds the water with millions of eggs and sperm. The eggs and sperm eventually encounter one another and fertilization takes place as they float freely in the warm water.  Larvae develop and find suitable sites on which to settle, often on another oyster’s shell—which is how oyster beds grow and become so dense with oysters.

These tiny oyster larvae are called “spat.” Young spat are “protandric,” which means that during their first year they are males releasing sperm during spawning. As they grow larger and more robust, they  become females and release eggs during spawn times. Interesting speculations could arise if one was inclined to dwell on this...

Be that as it may, for thousands of years oysters have maintained a reputation for improving one’s sexual vitality. The first commercial oyster bed was created at the ancient Port of Cumae in southern Italy to supply the lavish feasts of imperial Rome. Roman Emperors also imported oysters from as far away as Britain and it’s said that Vitellus, Emperor in 69 AD, would eat over a thousand in a day to ensure his prowess. Another famous Italian, Casanova, was  said to have eaten five dozen oysters first thing every day!

There may even be some elements of scientific veracity in all these legends too. Oysters do contain a chemical called dopamine—a neurotransmitter that influences one’s moods and capacity for sexual desire. To get the best dose of dopamine some oyster lovers hold the oyster in their mouths for several minutes, hoping to absorb as much as possible before swallowing. Oysters could be successful potency boosters because of their high levels of the essential zinc, one of the minerals required for the production of testosterone.  Men with zinc-deficient diets are at risk of prostate problems and both men and women with zinc deficiencies tend to suffer infertility and libido loss.

The oyster is a mollusk, a member of the group of soft-bodied animals that includes snails, clams, and sea slugs. Mollusks represent the earliest forms of animal life and fossil records show they were here 550 million years ago. With a hinged, two-part shell, the oyster is classified as a ”bivalve,” as opposed to a “univalve” like the snail.

There are four major species of edible oysters. Though edible oysters can occasionally produce a pearl, they are of no commercial significance and are not desirable in oysters cultivated for eating.

Crassostrea Gigas is found in Pacific Ocean waters. Some American varieties are: Yakima Bay, Golden Mantle, Kumamoto and Penn Cove. These tend to be larger oysters and are often cut up and used for stewing or soups.

Ostrea lurida is a tiny oyster, rarely more than 1-1/2 inches wide. It’s native to the American West Coast. Most of them found in the markets today will be from Puget Sound.

Ostrea edulis —The European Flat. Some also call all of this variety “Belons.” However, in France, an oyster may only be called a “Belon” if it is grown in a specific part of Brittany. Other European varieties are Galway, Marennes, Colchester, Helford, and Whitstable.

Crassostrea virginica —The American Oyster. It’s found along most of the coasts of North America. Geographical location names include Blue Point, Apalachicola, Chesapeake, Chincoteague, Malpeque, Pemaquid, Cotuit, Wellfleet, and others. The shells are usually two to four inches in length.

The type of oyster makes a difference in its size, shape and taste, but just as important, and some might say of primary importance, is the locale it hails from, since oysters take on the characteristics of the water where they are grown. That’s why most oysters are commonly known by their place-names, rather than by their Latin names. 

Colder waters produce saltier oysters. Less salty oysters will taste a little on the sweet side. East Coast oysters are usually a little higher in salinity, simply because of the higher salinity content in the Atlantic vs. the Pacific Oceans.

Thus, Belons from northern Maine or Nova Scotia will be salty, meaty and plump, with a coppery finish. Hog Island oysters from East Vancouver, where the waters are warmer and less salty, are known for having a sweet, almost smoky taste and a thinner, less plump body.

The name, Chesapeake, evolved from “Chesepiooc,” the Algonquian Susquehannock Indian word meaning “Great Shellfish Bay.” Fossilized oyster shells are layered nearly 50 feet high in some spots on the bottom of the Bay.

The live oyster beds here were once so huge that sailors had to learn to steer clear least they run aground upon them.

The bay’s shallow depths and plentiful oysters led to the development of the unique and beautiful Chesapeake Skipjack, a working waterman’s sailing vessel. These graceful boats still ply the coves and inlets of the Bay during oyster season, from October to April.

Sadly, today the Bay’s oyster population is reduced to about one percent of its historic level and healthy oysters are absolutely vital to a healthy Chesapeake. They cleanse and filter the Bay’s waters by consuming algae and other water-borne nutrients that are harmful. Scientists believe that the Bay’s original oyster populations could filter the estuary’s entire volume of water every three or four days. Now it would take almost a year!

Oyster reefs create craggy little mountain ranges that provide habitat for an enormous range of other animals—worms, snails, sea squirts, sponges, small crabs and fishes—all integral to the food chain and the web of life in our Bay.

We need to support the important work being done towards oyster restoration by efforts like The Chesapeake Bay Foundation and the Maryland Sea Grant College. Reef building, establishing sanctuaries, and breeding for disease resistance are all fostering a comeback, but still no clear-cut solution exists. This is a tragedy, and not only for those who love the oyster’s briny taste, but for the entire Chesapeake region.  When it comes to “Saving The Bay,” oysters are crucial!

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