The crassostrea virginica, also known as the Eastern oyster, was all I knew growing up in Annapolis on Maryland's Western shore. In the Chesapeake, they are generally mid-sized, briny, approachable bivalves, usually served with cocktail sauce (that highly underrated ketchup-based concoction that has unfortunately been overtaken by mignonettes in recent years) lemons, Tabasco, and crackers. To sit on the sidewalk in front of McGarvey's, which no one likes anymore except for me and my parents, drinking beer and eating oysters while midshipmen and tourists walk by on an early autumn day, sucks me into a memory vortex like Proust's lime blossom tea and madeleine. The taste of the Bay fills my mouth as if I were thrashing my way to the dock by my childhood home, latching onto a barnacle covered ladder and breathing in salt-inflected air.
In the Pacific Northwest, oysters are typically the small and sweet crassostrea gigas, transplants from Asia. I first encountered them when I moved to Portland, Oregon, but didn't begin a love affair until I met the Kumamoto, which, while commonly farmed in the same areas, is actually a distinct species (crassostrea sikamea). Floating in their deeply hollowed shells, they are to me the bastard children of Eastern and Pacific: salty and sweet, floating in their deeply hollowed shells, mid-sized. They are prized wherever they can be grown.
When Eastern oysters were devastated by the diseases dermo and MSX in the 1940s and 50s, there was talk of replacing native varieties with Asian imports, as the Pacific did after Olympia oysters were ravaged by overfishing and disease in the mid- to late- 1800s. In France and Portugal, the destruction of the Portuguese oyster, the crassostrea angulata, in 1969 led to a similar choice. Pacific oysters were introduced and the native species retreated; what had once been one of Europe's more common varieties ceased to be commercially cultivated at all.
At Cervejaria da Esquina, Vitor Sobral's upscale Portuguese beer hall, I was at last able to try one of the angulatas, so named because of their lovely fluted shells. Larger than a typical Eastern oyster, it was served simply with a lemon wedge. When I bit into it, my eyes popped; it had a sweet taste, not terribly briny, but also a taste that struck me as fecund. It had a creamy consistency that I had never experienced before and a rich, almost oily feel in my mouth. I found it shocking.
As it turns out, the Portuguese oyster is itself an Asian transplant, having been introduced, possibly from Taiwan, during the early days of intercontinental boat shipping, probably around the 1500s. I wonder if there were oysters there before that, true Portuguese oysters, driven out by their cousins from the East.