Raw, fried, char-grilled, simmered in creamy soup – we typically think of Louisiana oysters in terms of the best way to eat them, but enterprising entrepreneurs in the state are finding myriad uses for the luscious bivalve that extend beyond the plate.
New Orleans gemologist Anne Dale is putting Louisiana oysters on the map with her trademarked LaPearlite™ cabochon cut gemstones made from hand-cut, polished oyster shells. In August 2011, Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal signed a bill declaring LaPearlite™ the Official Louisiana Gemstone.
Dale hit on the idea during the BP oil spill, when worry about the health of the Gulf spurred a run on seafood. Like everyone else living along the Gulf coast, Dale says she and her husband were stocking up on shrimp and softshell crabs, and eating oysters by the bushel. She had an a-ha! moment while shucking oysters in her backyard.
“I’m sipping a beer, cracking open oysters and really noticing the way the sunlight hits the inside of the shell and reveals these gorgeous layers and swirls of pearlescent color – it just hit me,” Dale says.
Dale estimates that only about 10 percent of the shells she plows through at Motavatit Seafood in Houma will make the cut for her LaPearlite™ gemstones, but she is adamant about the superiority of Louisiana oyster shells for the process.
“My guess is that our brackish coastline – the unique mix of saltwater and fresh water – creates the ideal oyster shell,” Dale says. “Saltwater strengthens the shell, and I think there’s a connection between freshwater and aragonite, the mineral that gives the shell its lustrous gold qualities.”
Respect for the mighty Louisiana oyster also prompted Baton Rouge home brewer Kerry Yoes to create his Imperial Louisiana Oyster Stout – a beer that won the “Andy Award”, Abita Beer’s home-brew competition.
“Using oysters was really my way of showing support for my favorite food,” says Yoes. “The thought of Louisiana oysters on the half shell not being available anymore was horrible.”
So Yoes put his four years of home-brewing experience to work. Oyster stouts are traditionally made with oyster shells, but Yoes took it a step further, adding shucked oysters and oyster liquor to his blend. Abita chose Yoes’ winning recipe to be brewed and distributed as an Abita Select tap-only offering.
Oyster shells also travel full-circle back into the water to be used as oyster reef material. One Louisiana company, Coastal Environments, Inc., builds living oyster reef panels called ReefBLK℠ that are used in a variety of coastal projects, including erosion control. Piles of shells returned to oyster beds also provide an ideal habitat for oyster spat to attach to and grow.
Re-purposing oyster shells isn’t a new concept in Louisiana. Al Sunseri, president and co-owner of P & J Oysters in the French Quarter, says that underneath the asphalt, the streets of New Orleans are literally paved with oyster shells.
“My grandfather had a contract with the city to put oyster shells under the streets,” Sunseri says, rattling off Crescent City street names like Elysian Fields, St. Claude, and North Rampart.
Freshwater diversions driven by the BP oil spill damaged the Louisiana oyster population, which means P & J’s isn’t shucking – or producing the volume of shells – the company once did.