« May 2008 Table of Contents
One on One: Rowan Jacobsen
By James Wright
May 01, 2008
Rowan Jacobsen is lucky to have been able to write "A
Geography of Oysters: The Connoisseur's Guide to Oyster Eating
in North America," an informative book about the mysterious
mollusk. Lucky because, as a 12-year-old living near an eastern
Florida estuary, he developed a fondness for wolfing wild
oysters that revealed themselves at low tide. "When I think
back on those oysters," he writes, "I'm first and foremost
pleased that I'm not dead."
Food fanatics should be thankful Jacobsen survived to tell
his tale of youthful recklessness. He's now an up-and-coming
food writer and is a contributor to The Art of Eating , a
quarterly print publication by noted foodie Edward Behr that
allows its scribes to break free from the space constraints of
consumer magazines. Jacobsen also authored "Chocolate
Unwrapped: The Surprising Health Benefits of America's Favorite
Passion," and his next book, "Fruitless Fall, The Collapse of
the Honeybee and the Coming Agricultural Crisis," is due out
It's clear, though, that Jacobsen, 39, has an oyster
obsession he wishes to share with others. The goal of his book
($24.95, Bloomsbury USA), released last September and nominated
for awards by the James Beard Foundation and the International
Association of Cookbook Professionals, is to make more "savvy
and satisfied" oyster eaters out of us all. Since oysters from
North America's myriad shellfish-growing areas have varied
flavor characteristics, oyster appreciation requires proper
With "A Geography of Oysters," Jacobsen stakes his
claim as one of America's foremost oyster experts, whose work
bridges the gap between reveling and research.
A native Vermonter, Jacobsen earned his undergraduate degree
from New College of Florida in Sarasota, and his masters in
fiction writing at the University of North Carolina-Greensboro.
"I haven't written a word of fiction since," he admits. "I woke
up one morning and realized, it's all not true!" Let's hope he
tackles nonfiction seafood again in the future. After meeting
him at the International Boston Seafood Show, I caught up with
Jacobsen in late March for a full bivalve breakdown and
WRIGHT: What's your
JACOBSEN: My semester in Florence, Italy, was a culinary
awakening. The tradition, the focus - just the level of street
food was so much higher than I was used to. I've always been
interested in food, [especially] the origins of food, our
connections with food and what that tells us about who we
Why a book on oysters?
I always thought an oyster was an oyster was an oyster. But
there are hundreds [of varieties] out there and nine times out
of 10 the difference is purely terroir - the taste of the
place. Seed from the same hatchery, raised in different waters,
will have a totally different flavor. I spent the better part
of a year traveling around, visiting as many growers as
possible, asking them where the flavor is from and what in the
environment produces it. Oysters are kind of transparent
compared to other foods. Other than salt, they don't have any
strong initial flavor that masks the subtleties.
Is oyster appreciation art or science?
It starts off being an art. This holds true for other foods,
too. It's an art in that your initial appreciation comes from
your senses and how they respond to the food. Once we begin to
realize, "I like this and not this," we start wondering why,
which leads to the science. Harold McGee wrote the most
important food book of the last 30 years, "The Science and Lore
of the Kitchen." He changed the whole conversation among
How far has Americans' food knowledge come, both
professionals and consumers?
It's amazing how much has changed since our parents'
generation. Thirty years ago, they didn't want to know much
about it. I think it's a really healthy trend that we want to
open up the hood and see how it all happens.
How would you describe your research approach?
From a consumer's point of view - I was getting into oysters
and looked for a guide to navigate the raw bars, but didn't
find one. So I decided to do one myself. I thought, "What would
I want that would improve my experience at a raw bar?" It's
more helpful to enjoy food with a back-story. Wine appreciation
is heightened with a back-story, and there are certain words
you have to know. It's a value-added appeal for people.
Are wine lovers predisposed to liking oysters?
They've got that mindset already; they're into subtle
differences and taste experiences. But it's harder to get a
sensational combo than some people claim. I think it's the
umami - [oysters] change the flavor of wine. It gets tweaked,
which is good, but sometimes not good.
How many oysters did you eat
during your research?
About 40 to 50 a day at times. I cleared 1,000 oysters easy.
They're incredibly healthy; a super-high quality protein with
lots of vitamins and minerals. They're off the charts with
about 20 times the amount of zinc compared to any other
Is the book useful for buyers?
Definitely. I talked to a lot of executive chefs who
previously had stapled-together packets. Now they say they can
just use this book. A lot of seafood distributors are, too.
There's a ripple effect. Savvy oyster eaters are asking for
oysters I talked about in the book, and now the distributors
want those oysters. Consumers are really clueing into [variety]
and want a nice assortment. Oysters also get the bill up there,
so restaurateurs like them.
Why do oysters sell poorly at retail?
A lot of people think they don't like oysters. Usually what
they've tried are the low-quality oysters in the little tins
that have a really metallic taste. People who drink Folgers
might not understand the excitement about coffee. The quality
of oysters has gone way up. But there's still an intimidation
Would you rather enjoy oysters with newcomers or
Aficionados, but I get a kick out of converting somebody. If
you've got good oysters, it's easy to do. I like being Johnny
Assistant Editor James Wright can be e-mailed at