Coronavirus MS: Should I eat oysters for my health?

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Have you read about oysters in the 1918 pandemic being the equivalent of the missing toilet paper of the 2020 coronavirus pandemic?

This is not such an odd analogy. In highly-populated coastal regions during the 1918 Spanish Influenza Pandemic, oysters apparently disappeared as quickly as TP does today. Guards protected beds from thieves. Oysters prices shot up.

Why? Apparently 1918 Americans were more nutritionally savvy than we might think, or they followed food-fad mongers in droves.

Another possibility is that they truly believed old wives tales that claimed oysters prevent or lessen colds, viruses and flu. In 1918, medical knowledge was not as advanced as today, and Americans were desperate as they watched hundreds of thousands die.

I was unaware of the 2020 rebirth of the pandemic oyster until an editor asked if I knew about the Mississippi Coast oyster situation in 1918. She referenced an Eating Well magazine article that mentions a renowned New York chef’s Instagram post, in which Dan Barber claims oyster price-gouging, stockpiling and poaching skyrocketed in 1918.

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During the 1918 influenza epidemic, oysters were the hoarder equivalent of today’s toilet paper—stockpiling was ubiquitous, prices skyrocketed, black markets developed. Poachers raided oyster beds—you can often still see the remnants of single-room guard houses built in the middle of the bay where guards with shotguns stood lookout.⠀ ⠀ Why the hysteria? Legend had it that oysters could fend off the flu, especially the rich, briny broth locked inside. As legends go, it was fairly sound science. Zinc has been proven to be an immunity booster, and oysters are zinc powerhouses—pound for pound, these bivalves might be the best possible source of zinc.⠀ ⠀ Back then, oysters weren’t raised as cocktail-sized delicacies. Before steaks and chicken breasts, oysters were harvested at full size, providing a major source of protein for communities close to the shore. (Think: oyster stew for dinner.) Full-sized oysters—4 or 5 years old, like the oyster on the right (versus the typical 1 year olds on the left)—are a relic, as out of fashion as shoulder pads; but now that restaurants are on intermission (and restaurants account for 90% of oyster sales), maybe more of these beloved bivalves will be given the space to grow into maturity. Savor the benefits of the adult oyster? I think so. If not now, when?⠀ ⠀ This week’s #resourcED Fisheries Box—where Mike Osinski from @widowsholeoysters will be favoring us with as many of these mature oysters as he can forage—is part of a local catch worth celebrating. @docktodish

A post shared by Dan Barber (@chefdanbarber) on

Unfortunately, fact-checking far-off pandemic claims is difficult. Two previous deep-dives into how the 1918-20 pandemic waves affected the Coast hadn’t yet uncovered oyster health cures or local purloined oyster beds.

After another day of research, I now suspect that oysters were so plentiful here and already so much a part of the everyday Coast diet that there was no need for thieving or over-pricing. Not in our part of the Gulf, anyway.

I located only one article on the pandemic oyster, printed in an October 1918 edition of this newspaper but datelined New Orleans and headlined “Eating of Oysters Urged by Doctor:”

“Oysters are healthful and should form an important part in the diet of those suffering from the influenza, declared a local physician in repudiating a statement that persons should refrain from the use of fish, oysters and meat, not only to win the war, but also to check the spread of influenza.”

The reference to the war is, of course, World War I. Both New Orleans and the Coast wanted locals to know oysters were cheap, plentiful and healthful, and eating them did not take food out of soldiers’ mouths or spread the flu.

One Louisiana oyster company manager followed up with an advertisement that “prominent physicians have advised me that the health of the people will not be impaired by eating oysters during the influenza scare.”

Bad oysters apparently had sickened some, as still happens if harvested from unhealthy, polluted waters or if stored improperly. For the Gulf region rich in oysters, it was important to spread the message that oysters were a patriotic way to save precious meats for the war effort.

The population of the three coastal counties was less than 80,000, just one-fifth of today. The coastline was dotted with giant, thriving oyster beds that supplied enough for locals and to ship in factory cans or iced containers across the nation. Whether they reached regions affected by oyster hoarding is unknown.

This is when Biloxi and the Coast worked hard to claim the Seafood Capital of the World title. Earlier Native Americans had also harvested Coast bi-valves, described in 1699 by the first French explorers as “some rather good oysters.”

Changes in the natural environment, over-harvesting, storms and pollution all have played roles in Mississippi’s disappearing reefs.

But the 1918 oyster was an inexpensive staple, advertised as 50 or 65 cents for a sack of 100, or as high as $1.30 for select. Today, you’re lucky to get one oyster for $1.30. They also were larger back then.

Through scientific research, we now know oysters are one of Mother Nature’s perfect foods. They’re high in protein, low in calories and mineral rich in zinc, iron, copper, Vitamin D, selenium, potassium and magnesium. They’re also high in omega-3 fatty acids and antioxidants.

Anyone attempting to keep the COVID-19 monster at bay knows the importance of nutrition. Now we’re learning that safely processed oysters are again on a list of potential pandemic health foods because of high zinc content. Recent studies show zinc likely reduces onset and severity of viruses and flus, just like old wives tales claimed.

As businesses suffer from this pandemic shut down, so does seafood. Kudos to Chef Barber and other media platforms that bring attention to the oyster.

Could this pandemic create a renewed American interest in oysters, not as an expensive delicacy but as the healthy, affordable food it used to be? Is that possible with so many changes in environment? Maybe. Maybe not.

With this renewed oyster interest, maybe Americans will demand better federal and state intervention into sustainable oysters. Maybe flood-control projects like the Bonnet Carre Spillway that last year devastated 95% of the Mississippi Sound’s oysters will be rethought.

Maybe, maybe, maybe. Oysters become yet another intriguing COVID food for thought.

Kat Bergeron, a veteran feature writer specializing in Gulf Coast history and sense of place, is retired from the Sun Herald. She writes the Mississippi Coast Chronicles column as a freelance correspondent. Reach her at BergeronKat@gmail.com or at Southern Possum Tales, P.O. Box 33, Barboursville, VA 22923.

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