If you live or work in Pass Christian, there’s a good chance you have a relationship with the local oysters — with 14,000 acres of state-managed oyster reefs just off shore.
There are big processors such as Crystal Seas and on a small scale there are a few wholesale and retail seafood businesses, such as Kimball’s Seafood in the Pass Christian Harbor and Pass Processing.
Even if you are not in the seafood business, chances are if you are a local, you just might have a sweet spot in your heart for Pass oysters.
There are dozens of oystermen who harvest oysters, hundreds of people who work for the processors and retail shops but perhaps the professional oyster shuckers represent the smallest category of oyster-related employment.
Brian Thomaston is one such professional shucker, and if you have ever eaten oysters at Bacchus on the Beach in Pass Christian, chances are Thompson opened and roasted them for you.
Thomaston has years of experience and shucked his first oyster at a young age.
“There are three controversial topics of conversation in Mississippi: Politics, religion and whether you should rinse the grit off a freshly shucked oyster or not!” he said.
There is no middle ground in that debate. Almost everyone is firmly entrenched on one side or another. Thomaston is on the side of rinsing.
“If you pay a fair price for a dozen oysters,” he said, “the last thing you want to be doing is picking grit or bits of oyster shell out of your food. I am just not going to serve a gritty oyster to anyone.”
The other side insists that the oyster liquor you wash away is an integral part of the experience, and it is nothing short of sinful to wash it down the drain.
Thomaston said the much quoted refrain that oysters should only be eaten in months with an “r” is no longer true.
Refrigeration and strict state regulations insure that all harvested oysters are safe. In the unlikely event someone gets an “off” oyster, regulations require the tagging of oyster sacks noting where, when and by whom the oyster was harvested so the offending harvest can be tracked down.
On the occasion a bad oyster is found, it is most likely the fault of the restaurant and not the oyster man or processor.
Oysters should always be kept on ice. If you are served warm raw oysters, return them.
Pro at work
If you get a chance to watch Thomaston work, you will see a pro in action.
“I never actually timed it,” he said in reference to the time it takes him to shuck an oyster, “but no more than two or three seconds, unless you just happen to find a fighter.”
And Thomaston’s skills come in handy at Bacchus. On a good day they will go through hundreds of pounds of oysters. He is busy enough, he said, that he actually suffers from “oyster elbow.” No kidding!
The process involves shucking, rinsing and then preparing to serve either raw or cooked oysters.
The most common choices are Casino, topped with jalapeno peppers, bacon and cheese; Char Baked with butter, garlic and special seasonings; Rockefeller, perhaps the most famous preparation; and Gris-Gris, a Bacchus specialty recipe.
For a professional like Thomaston, he insists that the oysters you order are prepared to order. On busy days they are shucked in advance, but are kept on a bed of ice until ready to be served. If you order them roasted, the shucked oysters are loaded with toppings and hit the 500 F gas-fired oven still chilled. In just a few minutes they are transformed into bubbly hot tasty morsels.
Bacchus on the Beach
Where: 111 W Scenic Drive, Pass Christian
When: Monday-Thursday 11 a.m. to 10 p.m.; Friday-Saturday 11 a.m. to 11 p.m.; Sunday 11 a.m. to 10 p.m.
Two dozen fresh oysters on the half shell
4 tablespoons butter, softened
2-3 cloves chopped garlic
1/3 cup Panko bread crumbs
2 chopped green onions
2 cups chopped fresh spinach
Freshly ground black pepper and salt
1/4 cup grated Parmesan
1 tablespoon chopped parsley
Lemon wedges, for garnish
Sauté the garlic in butter for 2 minutes, add the spinach and wilt, then add the green onions, parsley, bread crumbs and Parmesan and season to your taste. Present an oyster on each shell half, load with the spinach mixture and bake at 450 for 10 minutes. Alternatively grill on a hot fire. Serve when bubbly hot, but please do not overcook.