Oysters, Oy! – Podcast #004

oysterA recent article on Slate proclaimed that vegans should be eating oysters by the boatloads.  But before anyone starts ordering a barge of bivalves, please think about these humble life forms. They have been reduced to 5% of their former population off our Eastern coast from  200 years ago. Heavy metals like cadmium and rising ocean temperatures along with poaching are putting their future at risk. Belonging to the mollusk tribe, they are in the same family as an octopus, one of the most intelligent of the mollusks. An octopus is thought to have the intelligence of a cat.  Cuttlefish also belong to this group of animals.  I recently witnessed a beautiful bit of underwater photography of cuttlefish.  They are quite elegant with their long arms floating like veils in front of them, with a male arcing them in a defensive posture to warn another male away from the female of his desire.  Well, somethings transcend the genus or tribe, don’t they? The film is a beautiful statement of another world which we land-bound humans often do not realize is there, yet shares a balance in nature with us, however unseen.

Christopher Cox Promotes Eating Oysters in Slate Article

Christopher Cox, writer of the pro-oyster eating article on Slate, states the following:

Animals are terribly inefficient machines for turning plants into food, and an inefficiency of this scale is disastrous.

First of all, animals are NOT machines! They are, like us humans, living, breathing creatures who feel hunger and pain, want to be left alone to live their lives, want to live with their own tribe, and want to avoid pain and death. To Mr. Cox, the problem is one of inefficiency. While he makes a good point (yes, animals use much grain and other resources that would feed more people than the flesh of the animals would), is that really the point? The problem is one of attitude and disrespect to other life forms, to the delicate balance of ecosystems that support all life. If humans could create an efficient way of turning flesh into food, I would still decline. Factory or lab-farmed meat is not on my horizon. Of course, eating lower on the food chain also helps prevent the ingestion of the massive amounts of pollution to which poor attitudes have contributed by allowing destruction of other species habitats in the natural world.

Now on to the oyster and other shellfish.  When in the Bay of Conception in Baja, Mexico, I was privileged to see some amazing marine life.  There was a fish there that had little square teeth, just like mine.  I was vegetarian anyway, but if I wasn’t that would have done it for me. (Why is it that animals that we identify with impact us most?) I had no idea any fish had mouths so human-like.  Yet, go back to the underwater scene of the cuttlefish to realize what a complex community lives therein. Just because it is unlike ours, or hidden from our view, does not mean it should not exist just for itself, for its own majesty.

Also while in the Bay of Conception, I witnessed clams running away. I never knew they could move like that, but they have feet that move them, as do oysters. And those bipedic bivalves wanted to get away from danger as much as any animals I have seen. Oysters, however, once they plant themselves, rarely move.  They have  sensitivity to light, to temperature, to chemicals, and they show a stress response (think noradrenaline) when scraped or shaken.  They have photosensitive fibers near the edge of their shells and optic fibers that allow them to sense shadows.  They do have a nervous system but it is considered primitive, without an identifiable brain such as humans have but rather is attached to ganglia. They do have a beating heart, kidneys, and breathe via gills and mantle much like fish.

The oyster is an important component of reefs that protect our seashores. Their shells help build the substance of the reefs and the reefs in turn help to protect our shores. They have the unique ability to filter water and help keep their communities clean.  They have a very strong muscle that protects them from predators, but still are a source of food for many marine animals, too.

The problem with Mr. Cox’s idea to eat “boatloads” of oysters, or any other creature, is the attitude.  Consuming communities should hardly be the goal at this point in the world’s history, with most of the sea’s marine animals in sharp decline and many on the verge of extinction.  According to marine biologist Boze Hancock, coral reefs have been reduced by 20% and oyster reefs by 85%!

The Oyster Represents Sexuality, Wealth, Status, and Success

The oyster represents many things in our culture.  According to Shakespeare’s play ‘The Merry Wives of Windsor’ (1600).’Falstaff: I will not lend thee a penny. Pistol: Why, then, the world’s mine oyster, Which I with sword will open.’ Act II, Scene II. The pearls that come from oysters are caused by an irritant that the oyster then develops a defense against.  A natural pearl only occurs occasionally, making them extremely valuable.

Thought to be an aphrodisiac, oysters are sought after to increase one’s libido.

Anton Chekov Wrote A Classic  Story about Oysters Denoting Class Disparity

Here is a short story by Anton Chekov, Oysters.

In this story, oysters represent the disparity between social classes. It seems that for thousands of years, some cultures on earth have looked at other creatures only as what they represent rather than what they are.

I sincerely hope that humans will consider other life forms as they exist in this world, separate but still a part of the web of life, created with purpose.  Because the real question is not whether they can think like we can, feel like we feel or whether they are easy to catch.  The real question is this: can human beings ever consider anyone else’s community, habitat or home, anyone else’s life, to be worth leaving alone? Can humans peacefully co-exist with Others? It is about respect for life and that includes the role of oysters, too.

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Susan Voisin of Fat Free Vegan on Veganacious

I was recently lucky enough to catch up with Susan Voisin of Fat Free Vegan. A busy creative woman with a background in website design, Susan has a family which includes a husband, a daughter, four cat and a dog.  She maintains a popular website and blog, and has compiled one of the most extensive recipe resources on the internet, helpful for both vegans and those searching for low fat cuisine. With hundreds of fans and thousands of visitors to her site, Susan has become a positive force in the vegan community. She always maintains a welcoming tone, noting that most of us have not been vegan forever.

Wildlife Podcast – Cuttlefish

Slate article by Christopher Cox

NY Time article about eating oysters

Leonard Lopate’s Underreported – Oysters

Nature Science Update – Stressed Oysters Sicken

Phylum Mollusca

Environmental impact of pollution on oysters and reefs

Fat Free Vegan

Profile of Susan Voisin