Interview: Oyster Guru Rowan Jacobsen

This oyster-obsessed Vermonter explains how to shop for oysters (and what to avoid when eating them at a restaurant).

Published Jan. 17, 2017.

If there’s one thing Rowan Jacobsen knows a lot about, it’s oysters. (OK, he knows a lot about apples, too.) His writing has appeared in Mother Jones, VICE, Harper’s, and Lucky Peach, and has garnered him a couple of James Beard Awards and a place in the Best Food Writing 2016. His most recent book, The Essential Oyster, is a love letter to oysters—and oyster lovers—everywhere. 

Jacobsen stopped by the test kitchen recently (with about 100 oysters in tow—thanks, Rowan!), and I got to talk with him about his oyster obsession. That conversation (lightly edited) is below.

Are there any public misconceptions about oysters you’d like to dispel?

Yeah, we should talk about the “R Rule.” That’s a famous old rule that says you should only eat oysters in months that have an “R” in them. Which means, basically, September through April. In other words: lay off in the summer. It goes back hundreds of years, but that had to do with when it was all a wild harvest. Oysters reproduce in the summers when the water temperature is at its peak, and they don’t taste very good when they’re reproducing. So the idea was, “Let them do their thing, and get back to them in the fall.” And also, as the water temperature gets a little colder, they get a little tastier. Now that it’s all farmed oysters and they’re all coming out of hatcheries, you don’t really need to pay attention to that rule.

Jacobsen unpacks a bag of oysters he brought to share with the test kitchen.

What should you be looking for when buying oysters at the supermarket?

They should be closed. If they’re open, don’t buy them because they’re dead. If they’re a little open and you tap on them and they close, that’s fine. [Editor’s note: This means they’re alive.] I use the fruit rule: they should be heavy for their size. If they feel weirdly light, that means they’ve probably already lost their liquid. Even if they’re alive, they’re going to be dry, and they’re not going to be in good shape. So, they should be heavy—they should be like a rock—and if you tap on them, they shouldn’t sound hollow.

Jacobsen demonstrates how to shuck an oyster.

When did your oyster obsession begin?

As a kid in Florida, I kind of got into them with my dad—he and I would hit up a skanky beach bar at happy hour and get ten-cent oysters. I liked the intensity of that experience, the whole primal nature of eating an oyster. It’s so different than eating a Chicken McNugget, you know? [Laughs] But then it was as an adult that I became fascinated by the differences among different oysters—the terroir. Every single bay has a different flavor—oysters are traditionally named for the bay that they came from. So just like with wine, you name the oyster for the place because the place makes it what it is. I’ve always thought that concept was very romantic, and it’s a great way to connect with the environment through food. That to me was a big draw.

Should we be wary of restaurants promoting oyster deals?

[Laughs] The dollar oyster! Makes me a little nervous sometimes. I avoid eating oysters in places that don’t make a specialty of oysters. Because it’s a lot more likely they’ve just been kicking around the walk-in for two weeks, or something like that. Places that are actual oyster bars and are cranking through a thousand oysters a night are getting shipments every other day. And they know how to shuck—the difference between a well-shucked oyster and a disastrously-shucked oyster is significant. When someone really knows what they’re doing, it makes a huge difference, both in the freshness and in the presentation.

A stack of Jacobsen's latest book, The Essential Oyster, sits next a plate of very essential oysters.

Have you ever found a pearl in an oyster?

I was just in Mystic, Connecticut last week at a place called the Oyster Club—which is one of my very favorite oyster bars—and a couple months ago, the shucker there had apparently popped open an oyster and found a nice pearl. He gave it to his daughter, but he had it appraised first and it turns out it was worth $2,000.

It’s very rare to find a nice pearl in our oysters. Pearls that you get in a store come from a whole different animal that lives in the south Pacific called a pearl oyster, which is actually closer to a mussel.

Is there anything you can do with the shells once you’ve eaten the oysters?

I throw them in my driveway. I’m trying to have the only shell driveway in Vermont. Also, chickens love them. Their eggs get better shells. A lot of chicken farmers feed oyster shells to their birds.

But the best use of the shells is putting them back in the water so oysters can use them to repopulate. The reason we lost all our wild oysters is because they got over-harvested. Even though there were oysters that were putting new larvae out into the water, the larvae didn’t have anything to set on. They can’t live in mud because they need something hard to attach to. Traditionally they’d build these huge reefs that could be miles long, where it was just oysters set on their ancestors. We took that all out of the water. So now there’s a big movement toward repopulation, and what you need to do is give them the beginning of the reef . . . There’s this thing in New York called the Billion Oyster Project—all the bars save their shells and give them to this non-profit. So all the shells go back in the water so new, baby oysters can set on them.

How did your oyster obsession begin? Let us know in the comments!  

Follow Rowan on twitter @rowanjacobsen 

Read more about test kitchen visitors:

Momofuku Milk Bar's Christina Tosi: Genius Baker, Funfetti Cake Lover

Dorie Greenspan Drops in on America's Test Kitchen

Bread Mastermind Peter Reinhart Visits the Test Kitchen

This is a members' feature.