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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 this September.

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 education. 
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 more.

WRIGHT: What's your 
culinary background?

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 are.


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 foodies.


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 food.


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 factor.


Would you rather enjoy oysters with newcomers or aficionados?

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 Oysterseed.


Assistant Editor James Wright can be e-mailed at jwright@divcom.com




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