Marion Lear Swaybill wanted to make an ode to oysters that was as much a guidebook as an art book celebrating their inherent beauty. With Boston chef Jeremy Sewall, she wrote “Oysters: A Celebration in the Raw” (Abbeville Press, $24.95) that comes out this week.
(The New York-based Swaybill, a longtime television producer, has ties to Austin as a board member of Conspirare, the internationally renown choral ensemble she fell in love with years ago.)
Before she started working on the book, she says she left it up to servers at raw bars such as Aquagrill in New York to tell her everything she needed to know about oysters, but then she got to know Sewall and some of the oyster growers he worked with and realized there was more to the story than the tasting notes the servers might be able to provide.
They worked with dozens of oysters farmers and photographer Scott Snider to produce a beautiful yet compact ode to more than 50 varietals and the history, lore, art and science behind them.
“We wanted to photograph them with great love, as if they were Cartier jewels,” she said over lunch recently at Quality Seafood. (Until our chat, I hadn’t thought about the early still life painters as creating the first food porn, an astute observation from this watercolor hobbyist.)
It’s the experiential nature of eating oysters that drew Swaybill in. “I can’t think of another ingredient that is like that,” she says. “It’s almost as if there’s this imperative and this impulse that you (slurp the oyster). And then you’re transported to that place. It tastes of the moment it was pulled out of the water.”
And that taste will vary from farm to farm, even those in the same bay, based on what kind of plankton and other material is in the water, how cold the water is and how much water is flowing around it. There’s even a term for it: merroir, the terroir of the sea.
As a New Yorker, Swaybill is always amazed to think about how much cities in the Northeast are literally built on oysters, either as landmass in southern Manhattan or to pave the streets of Boston. Oyster shells were even used as projectiles during the Revolutionary War.
During the industrial revolution, oysters were over-farmed and suffered from pollution in the oceans. Conservation efforts have revived the industry, and now 350 oyster farmers produce shellfish shipped across the country to a growing number of consumers. Despite the long-held belief that you shouldn’t eat oysters in the warm summer months, Swaybill assures readers that you can eat oysters year-round, but the ones in the cold months will be sweeter and generally higher in quality.