AUBURN, AL - Oysters are associated with Thanksgiving everywhere, but especially in the South.
"By 1863, when President Abraham Lincoln issued a proclamation fixing the date late in November, many families would no sooner skip the oyster course than the turkey," says Pat Curtis, director of the Auburn University Food Systems Initiative.
The briny morsels probably became associated with the Southern version of the holiday because of proximity to the Gulf, says Cova Arias, who researches oyster safety for the Auburn University Department of Fisheries and Allied Aquacultures.
"Oysters tend to be at their plumpest, tastiest and safest right around Thanksgiving," Arias said.
The popular folk wisdom is that oysters should be eaten only in months ending with "er," like September, October, November and December. That is because the presence of the pathogen Vibrio vulnificus in Gulf oysters, which causes illness in those with compromised immune systems, spikes during the sultry summer months.
V. vulnificus in raw oysters isn't a problem in late November, Arias says, and of course isn't a problem in any oyster dish that is cooked or made from canned oysters.
Gulf oysters are expensive this year because the Gulf oyster industry has been buffeted by a series of disasters – but that won't stop many consumers for whom oyster stuffing is a cherished staple on the groaning Thanksgiving table.
The number of oysters harvested in Alabama waters has decreased during the last few years because of problems ranging from natural disasters such as hurricanes and drought to the granddaddy of all manmade disasters, the BP oil spill. When BP's Deepwater Horizon drilling platform exploded in 2010, some 200 million gallons of oil spewed in coastal waters. Some two million gallons of toxic dispersants were added in an attempt to control the spill.
Two years after the oil spill, the Alabama seafood industry is still battling negative perceptions and fears that Gulf seafood is unsafe. Arias says there is not scientific evidence to support that the seafood is unsafe.
"Go ahead and enjoy your oyster stuffing," she says. "The price might be a little bit more this year, but oysters are delicious and an important part of Thanksgiving for a lot of people."
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