Pescetarian Bookshelf: A Geography of Oysters (Book Review)

Rowan Jacobsen, Author

The subject is oysters. And there is just one book that will take a seafoodie from oyster neophyte to oyster connoisseur and it’s this book: A Geography of Oysters–The Connoisseur’s Guide to Eating Oysters in North America, by Rowan Jacobson. Don’t be intimidated by the title. Within this book’s pages is not the tone of a tome but rather the authoritative voice and wit of a straightforward, knowledgeable and very hip guy. Reading this guide is as engaging as sitting next to Jacobsen in an oyster bar and getting the skinny on these diverse bivalves.

Jacobsen knows everything you could hope to know about oysters, from the varieties and flavors (based on a region and its waters) to selecting, shucking, slurping, cooking, and wine pairing. He was a James Beard Foundation Book Award Winner in 2008 for A Geography of Oysters and an International Association of Culinary Professionals (IACP) Cookbook Awards Finalist.

Rowan’s book begins by tackling myths and fears in his introduction. He asks, “Why Eat Oysters?” and deftly argues typical assertions that the unenlightened might proclaim, such as “Oysters are slimy,” to which Jacobsen retorts: “Guilty as charged. But so are mangoes. So is yogurt. In fact, some of the greatest pleasures in life are slimy.” Another faulty assertion from the introduction states “Raw oysters aren’t safe,” to which Jacobsen responds, “Only if you do several stupid things, like eat the wrong kind of oyster from the wrong supplier and the wrong time of year. The microorganisms that hitchhike in oysters and cause people hardship thrive only in warm waters. A Gulf of Mexico oyster consumed in summer is risky; a Northern oyster from cold fall waters is safe.”

In the first third of The Geography of Oysters, Jacobsen focuses on helping his reader master oysters by offering “A Dozen Oysters You Should Know,” and explaining the species of oysters and their characteristics. Becoming an oyster connoisseur is not unlike knowing and appreciating the subtle differences among wine grapes. The reader–especially the reader who knows wine–will understand and appreciate Jacobsen’s discussion of the flavor, body, notes, and finish of various oysters.

Even if you’ve never tasted a raw oyster, Jacobsen’s descriptions of eating oysters are beautifully accurate: “After the initial sensation of salt, you will sense the body of the oyster. For this, you will have to chew….chewing is where all the toothsome pleasure of the oyster comes out–the snappy way it resists your teeth for just a moment before breaking, like a fresh fig.” There are more descriptions like these as Jacobsen explains North America’s oyster appellations. This section of the book explains and illustrates oysters from the northeast and mid-Atlantic to the Gulf and Pacific coasts.

In the final third of A Geography of Oysters, Jacobsen addresses the business of acquiring, preparing, cooking (if you insist), and serving oysters. Oyster nutrition as well as popular places to consume oysters (oyster bars, oyster festivals) are covered as well. There are about two-dozen classic recipes and, if you’re apprehensive about cooking oysters, Jacobsen includes a few fail-proof recipes that promise success: “Oyster Stew for Dummies,” “Oyster Roast,” and “Baked Oysters with Tarragon Butter.”

For Ostreaphiles (oyster lovers) and seafoodies alike, A Geography of Oysters is a valuable reference book for keeping in the kitchen and for taking on the road. To learn more about Rowan Jacobsen and his work, visit and

Jacobsen, Rowan. A Geography of Oysters, The Connoisseur’s Guide to Oyster Eating in North America. New York: Bloomsbury, USA, 2007. Print.

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    • says

      You know, I thought that whole “r” in the month rule was a myth, but after reading Rowan Jacobsen’s explanation, I’ll follow the rule from now on. This is a great book to have if you love oysters.

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