You have your Kumamotos, your Bluepoints, your Wellfleets. And, if you look at the menu at some oyster bars, dozens and dozens more. But what's really in an oyster name? And how much does that name tell you about the oyster?
There are only five unique species of oysters harvested in the U.S., but the flavor nuances depend on where the oysters come from (or "merroir," the oceanic equivalent of terroir); how the water is filtered; and how the oysters are handled. Oysters feed by constantly filtering the water they're in, so they pick up plenty of the salt, the plant life, and whatever else happens to be floating around their habitat.
Most oysters have place-referencing names. Island Creeks (after the freshwater outlet in Duxbury Bay, MA); Otter Coves (from the Puget Sound); you get the picture. But the Blue Island Oyster Company on the Long Island Sound chose a New York icon, the naked dude in Times Square, as its oyster namesake.
"I was just driving down Seventh Avenue one day and saw the Naked Cowboy playing his guitar," said Chris Quartuccio of Blue Island Oyster Company. "And it clicked." Quartuccio was looking for an eye-catching name for his special diver-harvested oysters. So he called up the Naked Cowboy (we had to wonder: where does that man keep his phone?) in 2009 and asked for his permission first. The Cowboy, whose real name is Robert John Burck, said yes and is now making some sweet oyster royalties.
"It's become our best seller," said Quartuccio without hesitation. Last year he sold around 3.5 million Naked Cowboys to establishments across the country, including the John Dory Oyster Bar, Grand Central Oyster Bar, the B.R. Guest restaurants, and Legal Seafood.
What sets the Naked Cowboy apart from other Blue Island oysters, which are farmed in nets six inches below the water, is that Quartuccio and his team of six dive down 20 feet to hand-pick each Naked Cowboy off the Long Island sound floors. These oysters take about three years to reach full market size (three inches), by which time they're plump and meaty. Briny with a mineral-rich, vegetal flavor. You feel like you're slurping up a spoonful of that salty ocean nectar with each oyster.
And we slurped down quite a few (three dozen between the three of us? four?) on our visit to the Blue Island Oyster farm. After a seaplane ride from the East River, we landed on the water (it's always fun when your landing strip is water) near the farm, which is located at the Great South Bay, situated between Long Island and Fire Island.
While kayaking between oyster beds, we learned about the life cycles of the oysters, and why some times of year are better for oysters than others. During the summer, the oysters devote much of their energy to reproduction, so they're thinner and less ready to be eaten. "You don't want to eat oysters right after they spawn. They're so depleted. They can't even smoke a cigarette," one of our new oyster farmer friends told us. "They can barely order out for delivery." — Erin Zimmer, Max Falkowitz, Carey Jones