Last week was chilly here in South Mississippi, because of this my kids and I spent an afternoon snuggled together watching one of my favorite childhood movies, Disney’s Alice in Wonderland. One of my favorite parts is when Alice meets the twins, Twiddle Dee and Twiddle Dum. This interesting dynamic duo proceeds to tell Alice a tale about the curious little oysters. In short, the tale is about a group of little oysters, that are enticed by a fast-talking, singing, cigar-smoking walrus to leave their beds and take a walk with him. The wise mother oyster looks to the calendar and notices it is “MaRch” with emphasis on the R. She tells the oysters to not leave the bed, now is not a good time. Alas, the youths don’t listen and follow the walrus. Ultimately, they meet their end as a half-shell raw oyster dinner for the walrus. So why did the R signal the wise mother oyster to advise the children to not leave the bed?
The reason for this R emphasis is rooted in the oyster’s biology. Oysters are filter feeders living in beds with thousands of oysters clumped together. Since they are filtering the water around them, the contents of the water column are an important safety factor in raw oyster consumption. In the warmer months (months missing the letter R) there are naturally occurring bacteria that flourish in warmer water.
According to the CDC, because oysters are filter feeders and live in warm coastal waters, they are filtering bacteria that could cause infections including vibriosis, which is caused by certain strains of naturally occurring Vibrio bacteria. People can experience an array of symptoms from Vibrio infections ranging from diarrhea and vomiting to the more extreme symptom of bloodstream infections and blistering skin lesions (“Vibrio and Oysters,” https://www.cdc.gov/vibrio/vibrio-oysters.html).
Due to the increase of naturally occurring bacteria in these warmer R-less months, licensed harvesters must harvest oysters within certain time limits and the receiving dealer must cool the oysters down within a certain time limit. By placing these limits on harvest and cool down times the risk associated with these naturally occurring bacteria can be lessened. It is important to note that vibrio infections have been documented in months with an R but historically the cases are much lower.
If you decide to listen to the wise mother oyster and enjoy a half-shell dinner in this chilly R month, I encourage you to purchase from a licensed harvester or dealer. These licensed harvesters are meeting the requirements that lessen the risks of vibriosis. Here in South Mississippi, we have several options to purchase live oysters for your dinner table.
Remember to buy local and support local small businesses.
For more information on Vibrio please visit: https://www.cdc.gov/vibrio/vibrio-oysters.html