Not too many years ago, a strong winter wind from the north meant that eating seafood was about to get even better. North winds would expose the oyster reefs in the West Bay, making them accessible to anyone with a boat, a giant pair of tongs and a hardy tolerance for being cold.
It’s not as easy for sport fishers to snag a boatload of oysters, but fortunately good local oysters are plentiful in stores and fish markets. “Surprisingly enough, with the exception of one part of Galveston Bay, it’s been a pretty good year for oysters,” Raz Halili, co-owner of Prestige Oysters in San Leon, said.
Hurricane Harvey’s runoff caused short-term havoc in parts of Galveston Bay. The massive influx of fresh water decreased the water’s salinity and led to a 50% reduction in oysters, but Halili is optimistic that the oysters will bounce back. “Ike devastated us, but Harvey was different,” Halili explained. “Harvey didn’t damage the reefs, so in a few years things should be back to normal.”
The effects of Harvey were compounded by a new management plan instituted by Texas Parks and Wildlife. “A lot of boats are going to South Texas now,” Halili said.
Nevertheless, fresh oysters are still plentiful locally, though at a slightly higher price. “Compared to last year, they’re up 10 to 15 percent,” Halili said.
Although his company processes and ships oysters year-round, Halili said that February and March are the height of the season. “Right now, oysters are the best they’re going to be all year,” Halili said. “With our mild winters, they don’t really fatten up until January, and by May they’re getting ready to spawn, so right now is when they’re at their best and really tasty.”
One improvement over the old-school days of scooping up a boatful of oysters is the option to have them pasteurized. “It’s not something we normally do, but we have customers who request it,” Halili said. “If they call in and order them ahead of time, we’ll do it.”
Oysters are among the most versatile of Gulf Coast seafood, since they can be eaten raw, fried, barbecued and many other ways. One of the most popular dishes, angels on horseback, dates back to the 19th century, when oysters proliferated along the eastern seaboard. Fanciful Victorians named the dish based on the frills of the cooked oyster’s edges, which they compared to feathery angel wings.
Oyster stew and Oysters Rockefeller are both traditional ways to cook oysters, and combining the two dishes produces a silky soup with a balance of spinach, cheese and oysters. Of course, cooks continue to create new ways to serve oysters, and in recent years Buffalo-style oysters have begun popping up on restaurant and bar menus.
The Buffalo oysters include all the elements that make Buffalo chicken wings irresistible: a spicy coating, blue cheese and celery sticks on the side. They’re even better, actually, because they don’t leave behind a pile of bones, disappearing instead and leaving only some happy seafood-lovers behind.