When Mark Valentino started fishing for oysters in the 1970s, it was just something to do after he had finished high school, he said. The money was great, considering how many oysters there were in the Gulf of Mexico, the work wasn’t particularly complicated and he was good at it, he said. He figured he could make a living oyster dredging Galveston Bay.
He was right, but what he didn’t know was that he was also on the cusp of what would become a culinary movement a few decades later.
“You’d just go out on a boat and basically you have several different kinds of dredges — people call them a scraper,” he said. “It’s a bar that has some railroad nails that stick out of it and you’d drop it down and it skims across the bottom. We used to sell three to four truckloads every day.”
In the 1980s, the Gulf Coast oyster industry had taken off to the point that Valentino started his own business — Bay Fresh Oyster Company — and his shellfish success began to grow faster than ever. Even though oysters were still cheap, there were so many of them and the demand was so high an oyster fisherman could make more than $400 a day, he said. Oysters were a major staple for working people — a gallon of oysters would sell for about $20 — and you could find them on menus everywhere.
Until the prices started going up.
“At Red Lobster, the amount of oysters they used to sell was astronomical,” Valentino said. “But then they took it off the menu. Part of it had to do with health issues and problems surrounding raw oysters, but also, the price of a sack of oysters was so high it wasn’t a stable market anymore.”
Overfishing, weather events like Hurricane Harvey and the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in 2010 decimated Gulf Coast oyster populations. By some estimates, oyster supply in Galveston Bay has decreased by 60 percent in 2018 from a few years before, Valentino said. But the demand hasn’t gone anywhere.
“People are begging for oysters,” he said. “Right after the oil spill, within one or two days, you could buy a 105 pound sack for $20 a sack. About a week later you could buy an 80-pound sack for $40. It went on from there. By the time it got to a restaurant, it may be $14 a pound — we were the most expensive thing on the menu.”
Meanwhile, harvesting techniques, like the aquaculture industry on the East Coast, have made new kinds of oysters available for curious consumers, who only want more.
The changes in the industry have caused a transformation, said Will Ward, former CEO of Florida-based seafood processor Captain’s Finest Seafood and the vice president of Seafood Harvesters of America, a national organization that represents more than 10,000 commercial fisherman. While oysters were still popular as ever in the casual restaurants and bars that could afford them, a few years ago they really began catching on at high-end restaurants where people were willing to pay more than $2 for a single oyster.
“There’s been a transformation,” Ward said. “There’s still a rustic tradition, but oysters have expanded their breadth as a product, that’s for sure.”
At Tommy’s Restaurant & Oyster Bar, north of League City, that transformation — or at least a key part of why it’s happening — is literally written on the wall.
A large map of Galveston Bay hanging in the restaurant’s dining room depicts where different reefs are. It might not seem like much to an uninformed diner, but reef sites are a detail that’s driving high-end interest in Gulf Coast oysters, owner Tom Tollett said.
Appellations, a description of where a food or drink item comes from, have become more common with Gulf Coast oysters, which wasn’t always the case. These short descriptors tell a customer ordering an oyster exactly where that oyster came from, down to the reef.
“In the past, we would just get oysters from all over the bay, but today we’re looking for oysters from very specific areas,” Tollett said. “The locations of the reefs make a difference in the taste.”
If Tommy’s italicized descriptions of the best oyster reefs in Galveston Bay sound like something more suitable for a wine tasting than an oyster bar, then the restaurant’s Oyster Tasting rating cards should really drive the point home. Oysters have officially made the leap from rugged seafood appetizer to elegant dining experience.
The restaurant, which holds an annual oyster tasting for charity each year, has customers who pay $100 to rate oysters on a scale of saltiness, sweetness, flatness, creaminess, minerality and marine flavor.
“It’s become just like wineries,” Tollett said. “The flavor profile, that degree of salty, briny taste, tidal flows — it all makes a difference.”