“He was a bold man that first ate an oyster,” goes the Jonathan Swift observation of the whatever it must have taken to crack open the saltwater mollusk and give it a try. When I look at an oyster, I see gray- and cream-colored folds floating in a clear liquid; an ear with ripples; an aerial view of a waste lagoon; and (when I’m feeling romantic) the unbroken surface of a beige lake, with a suspicious, dark moon reflecting off to the side.
Is it alive? Do you just bite into it? Can it feel pain? (Is it screaming silently and I just don’t realize?) Should I dash it with this cocktail sauce? And why does it, at times, taste salty or fruity or metallic?
For answers to these questions, I decided to head to Greenpoint Fish & Lobster Co., owned and operated by executive chef Adam Geringer-Dunn and head (fifth generation) fishmonger Vincent Milburn.
“I don’t know anything about oysters,” says Geringer-Dunn, jokingly when I ask to interview him. The sleeves of his button-down plaid are rolled up and I can see a tattoo on his left forearm—a pair of “Wellfleet oysters from Cape Cod, Mass,” he explains later. But first, Geringer-Dunn referrs me to James Geoghegan, the resident oyster expert.
Geoghegan (“It’s Irish; rhymes with ‘Reagan'”) grew up in Mystic, Connecticut, the son of two scientist parents, and he dabbled in environmental science during college. Today, it’s clear he has an academic, as well as visceral, knowledge of oysters. I get to catch him for ten minutes of questions before he begins to prepare a tray of oysters for an order.
“I use different methods depending on the type of oyster,” he says. “These oysters, I’ll be shucking through the hinge, which is a ligament that connects the two shells together.” Geoghegan does the work with bare hands and a short, stout knife. Pop, pop, pop, moving the blade with deft skill, while talking about his first memories of eating one. (He was “very, very young—it’s not something that I took to immediately—but certainly before the age of ten.”)
Geoghegan lays out a neat row of five shells, shucked in half, on ice. It is 3:30pm, and everyone seems to be here for the happy hour oyster special—$1 Ndank oysters “with the purchase of a beverage.” I stop artist Tom Grenwald on his way out: Did you just have the oyster special? How was it? “Yeah, they’re pretty good,” he says, “because they’re a dollar each when you order a beer. They tasted great.” Why, I ask? “They were really fresh.”
“Fresh,” it seems, is the word around Greenpoint Fish. “We source the majority of our seafood out of New England via Boston,” explains Geringer-Dunn. “We also get stuff out of Florida, California, Alaska, Washington. All over the country. But Vinny has developed a number of relationships and contacts throughout the country to source all of our seafood. We buy direct—
“—What do I do?” says Milburn, propping his elbows up on the counter. He’s bespectacled with a friendly face and part of an American family tradition that dates back over one hundred and thirty years. At first, he resisted becoming a a fishmonger “with every ounce of energy” in his body; he became a Brooklyn-based entertainment lawyer.
But then, his past crept up upon him when Geringer-Dunn suggested opening up a wholesale fish market-slash-restaurant. “I’ve been a pescetarian for about thirteen years, and I’ve been passionate about home cooking, primarily seafood, and felt like there was nowhere to get it in north Brooklyn,” Geringer-Dunn explains.
“I was commuting to Manhattan, about a three hour round trip to get to Chelsea Market or even Whole Foods or whatever and was really frustrated because I saw that there’s so many amazing butchers, cheese shops, wine shops, and breweries now, and there’s just nowhere to get seafood,” he adds. “In such a foodie mecca as Brooklyn, it just seemed crazy to me that there weren’t more options.” Now—in Greenpoint—there are.
But, I came here for a history lesson in oysters, so here we go:
Around the time that Milburn’s family was getting into the fishing industry, oysters were still a poor man’s food, harvested by the innumerable thousands to be eaten on the half shell, raw or fried, baked, boiled, smoked, canned or pickled. Throughout the nineteenth century, New York Harbor was the largest source of oysters in the world—with some six million oysters harvested each day. But, of course, we exhausted the supplies by the early twentieth century, and that was that.
“We certainly want the best products,” says Geoghegan, “and we also want to have a diverse offering for our customers. We think about different regions that produce great oysters depending on the time of year.
“The Washington oyster that we have now is very special. It’s the eastern species of oyster, the species of oyster which is native to the eastern coast of North America,” he says. “The oyster from New Zealand is the more commonly found oyster grown on the west coat, the Gigas species, which is native to Japan. In the southern hemisphere, it’s a different season there now. West Pacific oysters right now are also spawning.”
“Spawning means that they are reproducing, which has a different texture,” says Geoghegan. “You might be chewing on a gamate than a flavorful, fatty oyster that is storing a lot of energy to help it survive the winter.
FARM-RAISED OR WILD?
Farm-raised—in the wild. “They are all farm-raised in different methods,” Geoghegan says.”Some oysters, which are farmed, are planted on the bottom. They call it ‘bottom planting,’ which means that they are released into the wild, and then harvesting sometimes by tongs or rakes, other times by dredges. The oyster from New Zealand is grown on a wooden stake. Some oysters are grown in cages or suspended from long lines grown in nets, which are closer to the surface of the water. The depth at which the oyster is grown can drastically the change the appearance and flavor of the oyster.”
Geoghegan: “One of the most common farming methods is referred to as ‘tumbling.’ Naturally in nature, oysters would grow long and horizontal and very thin. What tumbling does is that it creates a predation—it shifts off the edge of the shell and forces it to grow downwards, developing a deeper cup, which means it stores more flavor and more fat, which gives it a sweeter taste in the winter months.”
“The differences in temperature and the strong tides affect the way that it grows,” explains Geoghegan, “especially in the juvenile state, so it might be thinner towards the hinge—the bottom of the oyster. Also, a signature of oysters that are grown on the bottom and exposed to strong tides might be that the edge of the shell, where there’s a lot of shell growth, sometimes it’s bent back or bent forwards if it’s exposed to strong tides on the bottom”
He holds up a Coromandel oyster from New Zeland: “It has this way squared off shape, which indicates that it was peeled off of a wooden stake.” Other oysters, he says, may have a “a very strong, green hue” if they are “grown on the bottom, and spend lot of time being washed around in seaweed and plankton and algae. A lot of the green comes from the seaweed that gets pushed in and around the cages that it gets grown in before it’s harvested.”
Geoghegan: “Seasonality will certainly affect the taste. An oyster is much saltier in the summer months and less complex than it would be around Christmas, where it will be very well-balanced with a sweeter finish. Someone buying oysters themselves should be a be able to know where the oyster came from, who grew it, how it was grown, when it was harvested from the water.”
Geoghegan pops open a shell and holds it up. There’s a dry, stretchy-looking scarecrow inside. “It may have been dead when it was harvested,” he says, motioning towards this oyster. “Possibly, in transportation, it was not stored well. Maybe it was stored upside down, and the liquor escaped from the oyster.”
But the others—and, here, he looks at the the oysters nestled in the ice chips, surrounded by glass, breathing against the bar. “These are very, very fresh.”
BUT, THEY DIE TOO?
Cracking the shell, says Geoghegan, “begins the process of it’s life ending. It will survive for possibly another twenty to thirty minutes. Once the bottom muscle is totally severed, it will begin dying. Once someone really bites into it, it’s dead.”
“It’s always good to have oysters right after they’ve been opened and not a couple of hours after they’ve been opened.”
“I’m always biased. The Noank Connecticut is special to me because that’s the town I grew up in,” says Geoghegan. “This isn’t my favorite season to have them in, but some would argue that they’re very, very good in the summer spawn, where they have a very chewy texture because of the very pronounced reproductive organ as it prepares to enter the spawning phase.
The Virginica is a very unique and special oyster with an interesting flavor profile, as it’s an Eastern oyster grown in Washington, which is really atypical for oysters in the West Coast. As for texture, some of the East Coast oysters with more of the cucumber and melon notes associated with some of the West Coast oysters” are wonderful, he says.
“That’s actually really based in the sediment of the land around where those west coast oysters are grown. The term terroir gets thrown around in wine, in terms of not just the type of grape but the quality of the hill. For these West Coast oysters, it’s really the quality of the hill and the sediment that affects the flavors available in those growing conditions.”
TO EAT OR NOT TO EAT:
Geoghegan distinctly remembers the best oysters that he’s every had: “It was middle of the fall. They were really fantastic. From the Damariscotta River in Maine, so there’s really nice freshwater input and they were really deep, and they were grown on the bottom, so they’re also slightly mineral.” He ate at least fifteen to twenty in one sitting, not unlike the Walrus and the Carpenter (who famously ate the whole batch with dashes of butter, vinegar, and pepper).
“I don’t like to put any garnishes on New England oysters,” says Geringer-Dunn. “I think they have a lot of brine and flavor on their own.” Although he tells me about a southern way of eating oysters: “Taking a big Gulf oyster, putting it on a cracker, and hitting it with some Tabasco sauce; it adds all the flavor that’s not there.”
Milburn—the mustachioed ex-laywer and fifth generation fishmonger—takes it all in nonchalantly. What are people saying about him back home, in Boston, I ask? “Sexy muscle hunk, selling fish,” he says, without missing a beat.