Oysters And Shellfish
( Originally Published 1913 )
When we read, as has been related by Brillat Savarin, that while he was acting as Envoy of the Directory during the great revolution he dined with a Monsieur Laporte, who ate oysters during a whole hour, and consumed 32 dozen of them (which did him so little harm that he managed very well with the rest of the dinner), we must conclude that oysters must have been much cheaper one hundred years ago, and that at that time typhoid epidemic due to the eating of oysters did not occur. The latter was reserved as a blessing of our times, with our fully developed canalization ! We can, to be sure, understand the appetite of Monsieur Laporte and his contemporaries, who could not content themselves with less than a gross (12 dozen) of oysters, for in order to obtain sufficient nourishment from these bivalves a great many of them must be eaten. An oyster contains about 5 to 6 per cent. of albumin, i per cent. of fat, 3% per cent, carbohydrates, so that in I kilo of oysters 520 calories are contained. It would therefore be necessary to eat a very great number of oysters, and if these were the best of their kind, the Zealand oysters, or those from Ostende or Whitestable, one would have to be a multi-millionaire, like those owning palaces on Fifth Avenue in New York, to stand the cost. Vitellus was quite right when, about two thousand years ago, he called this food "cibis nobilium."
It is quite easy to eat a great many oysters, because they are very easily digested and because they also stimulate the appetite, so that they are to be recommended for persons suffering from lack of appetite. They can be well digested by all convalescents and weakened persons. It is because they tend to stimulate the appetite that oysters are served at the beginning of a meal.
Oysters are perhaps the only animal food which we eat raw, and, so to speak, living, for they are only healthful when they are perfectly fresh. It is possibly just this circumstance which exerts the stimulating and excitant action of the oyster diet, which, as we shall refer to later, is said to have an influence upon sexual activity. The Romans, those dissolute gourmands, had toward the end of their Empire very productive oyster beds near Bajae, and, as Pliny and Horace have related, they were great lovers of the succulent bivalve.
Just as raw meat has useful properties against tuberculosis, so did Boerhave detect a similar effect in oysters. Since the valuable properties of the oyster are entirely lost after they have been cooked, these must be contained in the extractives, in the juice of the raw oyster. It is a very great pity that at present the eating of raw oysters is frequently productive of quite serious danger to the health, for in some regions the sewage water is emptied very near the oyster banks, which frequently contain typhoid bacteria; and it is a fact that in some large cities, as in Paris, for instance, rather serious epidemics of typhoid fever usually occur about three or four weeks after the Christmas season, or during the early months of the winter, owing to use of such infected oysters. During the past few years, however, conditions have improved, and the authorities in the regions where there are oyster beds and colonies have enforced strict regulations in regard to the cleanliness and purity of the water. The government of the Netherlands, for instance, went so far as to examine and to prepare cultures of the water in laboratories, in order to convince themselves that no injurious bacteria were contained therein, so that the oysters could be eaten with safety. We consider oysters a very healthful, although not very nourishing, food, which is best adapted for the use of patients and convalescents, as well as for gourmands. Hutchison states that in 12 oysters there are only 5 grams of digestible albumin, and, according to Stutzer, 1 egg contains as much nourishment as 14 oysters.
Mussels may even be more dangerous when eaten raw; recently a severe typhoid epidemic was caused by them. Mussels are more nourishing than oysters, as they contain more albumin ; in fact nearly twice as much as the oysters, about 9 per cent., and about the same amount of fat and carbohydrates. The. mussel, however, is more difficult to digest, as the meat is tougher. It is certainly safer to always have them cooked, as they, as well as the oysters, may not only cause typhoid, but may also give rise to severe poisoning cases, and also to intestinal catarrh, when they grow in water which contains poisonous matter.
Symptoms of poisoning are also frequently caused by eating crabs. Their meat has a very agreeable taste, but they, like their larger brothers of the ocean, the lobsters, eat decayed and putrefied substances and injurious meats, and very frequently urticaria and other eruptions occur after their ingestion. In one case which I observed, that of an English clergy-man, the entire right arm was swollen after he had eaten some lobster; the swelling soon disappeared, however. It is most important that these crustaceans should, as soon as they are removed from their own element, be placed in boiling water, and they should likewise be eaten soon after they are cooked—possibly a day later. It is certainly a barbarous habit to do as some cooks do, who put them into cold water and then let them boil slowly, instead of at once putting them into water which is already boiling. It may possibly have been this method of cooking which caused the poisonous symptoms. The meat is very compact and is difficult to digest. Owing to the hardness of the meat, however, it is necessary that it be well masticated, and it is then rather more easily digested, when not eaten in too large quantities. The lobster being eaten cold, this also may affect the digestion unfavorably.
Sometimes lobster soup has caused cramps. It would certainly not be advisable for the author of a book on rational dietetics to recommend the eating of crabs or lobster.
For economical reasons I must, nevertheless, say that these crustaceans contain much nutriment. Lobster, according to Payen, contains from 13 to 19 per cent. of albumin (thus approximating beef) and about 1 per cent. of fat. Crab contains, according to König, to per cent. of albumin, 0.4 per cent. fat, 1 per cent. carbohydrates, and 100 grams of the meat give about 8o calories. It must also be remembered that they, like the oyster and mussel, are very rich in certain nutrient salts, phosphorus in particular' ; lime is also present in fair amounts. If we are desirous of absorbing these salts in such foods, it would be better to eat the shrimps and small crabs; these are also more easily digested when well masticated. Quite a number of these small crustaceans can be used at one time without untoward effects, and in some resorts at the sea-side, as at Ostende, the physicians order their patients to eat shrimps already at breakfast, as they are considered a healthful food. The influence of these crustaceans upon the sexual functions, which has been praised since ancient times, I shall discuss later on. According to König, crabs contain 15.8 per cent. of nutrient substance, 1.32 per cent. of fat, and 2.42 per cent of carbohydrate.
We do not wish to close this chapter without referring to two animals having shell-like habitations, i.e., the tiny snail and, as a contrast, the large tortoise. The snails found in the vineyards in France and in Spain, where they are called "caracoles," are eaten in large numbers. Personally, I did not find them very good, and I consider them hard to digest. The gelatinous meat of the tortoise is preferable, and the "real turtle soup" used in England has quite a stimulating effect on the appetite. This is however, its chief advantage.