Oysters to Dewberries
Texas cooking may conjure barbecue more than bivalves, but long before cattle roamed the range, Native Americans along the Gulf Coast were all about seasonal seafood.
Located on a peninsula along the northern Gulf Coast of Texas, the unincorporated town of Smith Point is home to two main industries: cattle and oysters. To get around, you have to shoo the steers out of the way as you drive down the dirt roads that run through the middle of the bayside salt grass pastures. I had asked a local oyster fisherman to show me a Native American shell midden here on the shores of Galveston Bay, the modern center of the Texas oyster fishing industry. So I park beside the water on the east side of the peninsula, where a strip of crushed shells — starting from the dunes and running out into the waves — interrupts the sandy stretch of beach.
The shells are part of an oyster and clamshell midden, a centuries-old garbage dump, left behind by seafood lovers from the Karankawa, Akokisa, or another Texas coastal tribe. I’m told the midden was much larger before Hurricane Ike washed much of it into Galveston Bay. The largest shell middens of this area date from around 1,000 B.C., but older middens in South Texas have been carbon-dated to as early as 8,000 B.C. I pick up a jagged mollusk shell and try to imagine the ancient clambakes that must have been held here.
In 1528, Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca — the first European observer of all things Texan — washed up on the beach on or near Galveston Island. Cabeza de Vaca and his fellow shipwreck survivors were naked, suffering from exposure, and shivering in the November wind. Two of the crew had already died. According to Cabeza de Vaca’s published account, La Relación (The Report), the Native Americans who discovered the men knelt down and cried at the sight of them.
Every morning the Natives brought the Spaniards cooked cattail roots and fish to eat. When the survivors were strong enough, the Indians took them back to their village and gave them a lodge built in the Karankawa style out of long, bent sticks planted in the ground and then covered with hides or leaves. Cabeza de Vaca called the tribes he lived with on the Texas coast the Han and the Capoque, and he spent several years living among them (at first voluntarily, then later as a prisoner). His book, published in 1542, is one of the earliest natural histories of the New World.
It would be 150 years before the French explorer La Salle would make contact with the coastal Indians of Texas again in the late 1600s, and by that time no record of the Han or Capoque could be found. The two groups were probably part of the larger Karankawa tribe. Spanish observers later attempted to portray them as savage cannibals, but experts now believe these accounts were exaggerated or just plain false. The coastal natives no doubt looked very strange — it has been reported that they covered their skin with an oily substance that may have been shark fat or natural beach tar to ward off mosquitoes and protect them from the sun.
The Karankawas and other coastal tribes moved around South Texas following seasonal food sources. They hunted deer and other wild game wherever they went, but the waters off the coast were a more reliable source of food. In the fall they lived on the barrier islands spearing and netting fish and crabs, and digging cattail roots. When the cold winds started, they moved to the mainland shore and spent the winter harvesting oysters in the bays between the mainland and the barrier islands. There are no accounts of American Indians eating oysters raw; it seems they preferred their oysters cooked.
Oyster aficionados argue about whether or not it’s wise to eat oysters in months without an “r,” but the Karankawa had that puzzle solved half a millennium ago. They ate oysters during the peak of the season in the coldest part of the winter. They stopped eating oysters when the wild dewberries were at their peak in late April.
The wild blackberries that we call dewberries in East Texas were a favorite of many tribes of Indians across the South. The thick brambles aren’t as easy to find in the wild as they were a few hundred years ago, but horticulturalists at Texas A&M and the University of Arkansas have introduced several varieties of blackberries that are now grown by farmers and gardeners. A few of the new cultivated wild Southern blackberry varieties include Choctaw, Arapaho, Shawnee, and Navaho. Because they are improved varieties and come from wild blackberry stock, the flavor is pretty close to the berries the American Indians once ate.
Cabeza de Vaca reported that after a month or so of feasting on berries, several tribes met in an area south of what is now San Antonio, where prickly pear fruits could be harvested. When the prickly pear season ended, some Indians headed for the banks of what they called “the river of nuts” (probably the Guadalupe), where they ate pecans that fell from the trees. After the nuts ran out and the cold set in, the coastal Indians headed back to the barrier islands and began the cycle all over again.
The Native American understanding of oysters, evidenced by the months they ate them, is quite impressive — and confirms what I learned about the life cycle of oysters from a marine biologist named Dr. Sammy Ray. According to Ray, the season of the oyster goes roughly like this: In the fall or early winter, cold weather and falling water temperatures cause oysters to begin storing a carbohydrate compound called glycogen. To humans, glycogen tastes like sugar. As the water gets colder, glycogen accumulates and the oysters get plumper and taste sweeter. That’s why eating oysters has always been associated with the mid-winter holiday season.
In the Gulf, as the weather keeps getting colder, the oysters keep tasting better, reaching their peak in March. In colder Northern climates, glycogen production usually slows down in the coldest part of the winter as food sources become scarce in the frigid waters. Hence, Washington state and Canadian oysters taste better in the “shoulder seasons” of early spring or late fall.
In Galveston Bay, when the water temperature reaches 70 degrees around the start of April, the oysters begin to convert glycogen to reproductive material, or gonad, as it’s called. As the season progresses, the oyster begins to lose its sweetness and becomes “fishy” tasting. It’s not an unpleasant flavor — in fact, many oyster lovers like it — but it isn’t sweet. In the early summer, as the oyster prepares to spawn, you begin to see a “milky” white substance on them. They aren’t dangerous to eat at this point, but most people find that the flavor and texture of spawning oysters makes them “hard to swallow.”
Sometime in the summer, when the water gets very warm, the oysters will spawn. The wild oysters of the Galveston Bay secrete sperm and eggs into the water, producing hundreds of millions of larvae. When summer ends and the water begins to cool in autumn, the cycle starts again.
Fifty years ago, you found oysters on the market in the winter and tomatoes in the summer. Today, thanks to oyster leases and tomato hothouses, both are available all year long. But they are still seasonal foods. You can eat winter tomatoes and summer oysters if you want, but they certainly won’t taste their best. Coincidentally, summer is also when Gulf oysters contain the highest levels of the naturally occurring bacteria Vibrio vulnificus, which is occasionally lethal.
So where does an enlightened food lover draw the risk-and-reward line when it comes to raw Gulf Coast oysters? I once asked Gary Heideman at the Seafood Safety Division at the Texas Department of State Health Services for his advice. He explained that when the water temperature is below 65 degrees, little or no V. vulnificus is detectable. In Texas, the water temperature stays below 65 degrees from about December until late March. (You can check the exact temperature in the marine forecast section of a weather website.) So as it works out, Gulf oysters are the safest during the same period that they taste the best.
How strange that modern oyster lovers are still arguing over something the Karankawa tribe had figured out 500 years ago, and probably long before that. Following their example, I eat Gulf oysters in the winter when the glycogen makes them sweet and fat. And in the late spring, I switch over to foods that have their peak season in warm weather — like homegrown tomatoes and dewberries.
Robb Walsh is a veteran food writer and three-time James Beard Award winner. His latest cookbook, Texas Eats: The New Lone Star Heritage Cookbook, with More than 200 Recipes (Ten Speed Press, 2012) includes recipes for oysters, fish, crab, and shrimp in addition to plenty of chuck wagon cook-off fare and vintage Tex-Mex.