Serious Reads: Sex, Death & Oysters, by Robb Walsh



When noted food writer Robb Walsh set out to write an article on oyster fishing, he knew the formula for writing such a piece. Find a curmudgeonly oysterman, jot down a few quotables while out on his boat, crack open a fresh oyster back on shore and enthuse about its particular delectability. But his first outings led to the quick realization that the oyster business is much more complex and manipulated than this simple, preconceived story. Thus commenced five years of research, culminating in Sex, Death & Oysters: A Half-Shell Lover's World Tour.

His hunt for the truth about oysters would take him all over the world, from the classic oyster bars of New Orleans to the town of Colcester, England, home of an annual Oyster Feast. Walsh identifies every oyster he encounters by its Latin name, and goes into detail about its origins. He also indulges in many adjective-heavy depictions of oyster slurping, which became a bit repetitive. But as someone who has never consumed a raw oyster, his consistently over-the-top style allowed me to differentiate among the dozens of oysters discussed.

For those with a deep interest in the intricacies of oyster breed and fishing, this book can be a good guide. Walsh makes a point of delving into the politics of oyster fishery, water quality regulation, and regional taste preferences. He also draws in history and anecdotes to enliven the tale of this modest mollusk.

For instance, in the aforementioned town of Colcester, the locals barely consume raw oysters anymore for (misplaced) fear of sickness and contamination. Yet the Feast still draws all the town's highest officials—the mayor sits on a large throne while local dignitaries surround him, sporting oyster-decorated regalia. The half-shells before them may go uneaten, but the ages-old tradition lives on.

Walsh's narrative straddles the genres of personal memoir and investigative reporting, but falls a bit short in both categories. He slips in far too many lewd references to the stimulative effects that oysters have on his blonde, "voluptuous" wife, which read awkwardly alongside discussion of regulatory issues and statistics of oyster consumption. The recipes at the end of each chapter were also somewhat extraneous, not relating much to the preceding text and seeming a bit advanced for the home cook.

But Walsh engages the reader; it is a testament to his delectable writing that I have lately been dreaming of the oyster I've never eaten. For oyster fanatics, the book will read as a like-minded friend's whirlwind, mouthwatering adventures. And for those less informed, you will soon wonder what took you so long to enter the world of the oyster, and start Googling the nearest oyster bar.