You can\u2019t talk about this country\u2019s waterways and coastal histories without oysters. The United States\u2019 estuaries (where rivers meet the sea), such as Chesapeake Bay and Puget Sound, were largely comprised of oyster reefs, which purified the water, gave habitat to other marine life and provided stability to shorelines.\n\n\n\nJust as important, they were one of the most abundant food sources for millennia. There are middens (shell deposits) in the U.S. that show continuous oyster consumption for over 5,000 years. Florida\u2019s Mound Key, south of Fort Myers, contains the shells of almost 20 billion oysters that were harvested by the Calusa tribe.\n\n\n\n\n\u201cCicero ate oysters to nourish his eloquence, and the ancients used them with a startlingly cold-blooded combination of gastronomy and pure hygiene.\u201d\nM.F.K. Fisher, from \u201cConsider The Oyster\u201d (1941)\n\n\n\nThese ancient middens show no reduction in oyster size or quantity over time, suggesting that indigenous people practiced sustainable fishery that colonial populations did not even think of. Until the late 1800s, oysters were so abundant as to practically be free, but by the close of the 19th century, overfishing, disease and pollution collided to spark a slow decline. Today, there are virtually no wild oysters sold commercially.\n\n\n\nThe good news is that farmed oysters are a net positive for the environment. A single adult oyster can filter up to 50 gallons of seawater a day. The so-called \u201coyster liquor\u201d\u2014the delicious liquid inside a just-shucked oyster\u2014is just filtered seawater.\n\n\n\nCrew members \u201cflipping and tipping\u201d oyster racks, which affects shape and condition, at Hog Island Oysters in Tomales Bay, California / Photography by Remy Hale \n\n\n\nThere are many advantages to (non-oyster) aquaculture in terms of providing a high-quality food source, employment, ecological balance and more. However, it can also involve drugs and chemical disinfectants, large quantities of fish feed, pollution by waste products and excess nutrients and complex equipment that negatively affects the sea floor.\n\n\n\nOyster farming, on the other hand, has virtually none of these downsides. Because oysters are stationary beings\u2014making just a single real estate decision their entire lives\u2014that require no feed and purify, rather than pollute, the water, it\u2019s more akin to growing plants in a nursery. As a bonus, farmed oysters have a better and more reliable shape, size and taste than wild.\n\n\n\nThe shells from oyster consumption can be returned to the water with oyster \u201cseed\u201d (oysters are very fertile; a single male and female oyster can create millions of babies) to restore oyster reefs. In the wild, oysters like to settle and grow on other oysters or oyster shells. These reefs can help prevent coastal erosion, provide habitat for vulnerable marine creatures and help restore wild oyster populations that eventually could deliver the same environmental benefits without human intervention.\n\n\n\nIn other words, you can think of eating oysters as an ethical, and delicious, imperative.\n\n\n\n\n\n\n\nCrucial Considerations When Opening an Oyster\n\n\n\n\nFind an opening near the hinge where you can wiggle the tip of the knife between the top and bottom shells.\n\n\n\nSlide it in parallel to the top of the shell gently, above the oyster meat. Use a back-and-forth twisting motion with your wrist, rather than poking or stabbing straight down.\n\n\n\nAs the knife goes in, turn the knife like you would a door knob to pop the shells apart.\n\n\n\nTry not to spill the \u201cliquor.\u201d\n\n\n\n\n\n\n\n\nBeverage Pairing with Raw Oysters\n\n\n\nFor such a simple and pure bite of food, oysters on the half-shell inspire a lot of debate about what to drink with them. This is not because they\u2019re difficult to pair with, but just the opposite. The hit of brine contrasted with a cucumber-like sweetness lets you go in myriad directions:\n\n\n\nCrisp and Mineral White Wines\n\n\n\nChablis and Muscadet are often cited as ideal pairings for their acidity and vaguely saline or seashell minerality, but add Albari\u00f1o and Assyrtiko to that list. They all share qualities with the oysters themselves, for a complementary, rather than contrasting, pairing.\n\n\n\nChampagne\n\n\n\nAt least for the time being, oysters are a luxury, and Champagne amps up the level of luxe. It also has the acidity and minerality that go so well with raw oysters. And if yours happen to have stronger flavors or richer toppings, the bubbles help cleanse the palate.\n\n\n\n\n\n\n\nSweet Wine\n\n\n\nThe sweet and salty combination is nothing new: Sweet wine and oysters were the assumed pairing in much of the world in the 1800s. Sauternes is lovely\u2014perhaps because the funk of botrytis has an affinity with shellfish\u2014but any sweet wine with balancing acidity is an addictive accompaniment.\n\n\n\nStout Beer\n\n\n\nIn oyster-loving Ireland, you might be ostracized for not drinking a Guinness with your oyster\u2014and it\u2019s not just patriotism. Stouts are more malty (sweet) than hoppy (bitter), with a silky texture that goes with creamier oysters, while accentuating the \u201cpop\u201d of crisper ones. Each teases the sweetness of the other.\n\n\n\nDry Cider\n\n\n\nCiders range from bone dry to sugary sweet, but always with a crisp-tart appley flavor that could almost be used directly on oysters in place of mignonette. Still, for the best pairing, look for one labeled \u201coff-dry\u201d or \u201csemi-sweet\u201d for a sweet-tart-salty flavor combo.\n\n\n\nSake\n\n\n\nThere\u2019s good reason that sake is a default pairing with raw seafood in Japan. Whether crisp and dry or milky and sweet, sakes have a lush fullness of flavor that is especially good with larger and brinier oysters with creamy or chewy textures.\n\n\n\n\n\n\n\nWine Pairing with Cooked Oysters\n\n\n\nThe heartier flavors of cooked and prepared oysters demand different wines. We asked chef Christopher Haatuft of Houston\u2019s Golfstr\u00f8mmen (and a Norwegian restaurant empire) and his consulting wine director Mads Kleppe for their thoughts on prep and pairing, respectively.\n\n\n\nSteak and Oyster Tartare\n\n\n\nHaatuft: \u201cRaw, lean beef or whale\u2014I know, but I\u2019m Norwegian, so sue me\u2014has some of the same iodine flavors as briny oysters. We mix them and dress with fine shallots, mixed herbs, chopped housemade pickles and a fruity olive oil.\u201d\n\n\n\nKleppe: \u201cFor this mineral yet exotic serving, I like aromatic wines with good acidity and freshness, like cool-climate Riesling or Sylvaner. As a more experimental choice, a P\u00e9t-Nat could be fun and delicious.\u201d\n\n\n\n\n\n\n\nBroiled or Fried Oysters\n\n\n\nHaatuft: \u201cThough I\u2019m Norwegian, my mother is from Tennessee, so I have a craving for Southern food. Cornmeal fried oysters with a sour cream ranch dressing is the perfect snack. And for bigger oysters like Gulf oysters or wild Belons, we mix butter with grilled scallions, chili and panko.\u201d\n\n\n\nKleppe: \u201cWhether broiled or fried, try a luxurious combination with Champagne, especially one on the richer side, like a Blanc de Noirs based on Pinot Noir.\u201d\n\n\n\nOyster Soup\n\n\n\nHaatuft: \u201cWe base ours on a traditional fish soup from Bergen. It\u2019s made with a powerful fish stock\u2014no dainty French f\u00fbmet here!\u2014thickened with sour cream, beurre mani\u00e9, egg yolk and more sour cream, with vinegar for acidity and finished with a touch of sugar. The oysters are gently poached in the warm soup. It\u2019s usually the best fish soup anyone has tasted, but it might give you a heart attack.\u201d\n\n\n\nKleppe: \u201cThis deserves a rich and full-bodied white wine, like good Chardonnay from prestigious villages in Burgundy or exciting producers in the cooler regions of California. Regardless, find one with good acidity to play with the creamy textures and flavors of this amazing soup.\u201d\n\n\n\nGive oysters a try with our recipe for oven-roasted oysters with bone marrow and pistachios or serve fresh oysters alongside a white wine mignonette. \n\n\n\n\n\n\n\nOyster-Reef Restoration Projects You Can Support\n\n\n\n\nBillion Oyster Project\n\n\n\nChesapeake Oyster Alliance\n\n\n\nCoalition to Restore Coastal Louisiana\n\n\n\nMartha\u2019s Vineyard Shellfish Group\n\n\n\nNorth Carolina Coastal Federation\n\n\n\nOyster Recovery Partnership\n\n\n\nPuget Sound Restoration Fund\n\n\n\nVirginia Oyster Shell Recycling Program\n\n\n\nWild Oyster Project\n\n\n\n\nThis article originally appeared in the February/March 2023 issue of Wine Enthusiast magazine. Click here to subscribe today!