Good Groceries and Heroic Oysters

I know every subscriber to this newsletter has a gorgeous soul and doesn’t need to be told to be nice to servers, but I want to share this story of the taco shop chain in Los Angeles that had to re-close because customers kept screaming and throwing things at the cashiers. Sadly, we all probably have someone in our lives who needs it forwarded to them.

Along those lines … let’s all agree to only order takeout for the time being! Maybe until there’s a vaccine! It sucks but dining in restaurants is pretty unfair to servers! (So is unemployment! You don’t need me to tell you this country is a mess!) Also tip at least 20% or 20 dollars, whichever is more. On Instagram I’ll be doing weekly round-ups of restaurants to patronize (not just in L.A.); message me if you have a recommendation.

In other news: What’s your favorite specialty grocer? Mine is a Russian spot in East Hollywood. Tell us about yours here.

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Photo: Coalition to Restore Coastal Louisiana

Rebuilding Reefs by Slurping

By Audrey Bruno

It’s rare that I’m able to sit down to a meal without thinking of the unseen consequences the contents of my plate may be having on the world. That goes double for anything that feels like a delicacy — foie gras, caviar, and, of course, oysters. Upon my first encounter with the bivalve, I felt great pleasure and guilt at once. If I knew anything, it was that anything that good couldn’t possibly be beneficial to the environment. 

I was wrong. Turns out oyster farming can be incredibly sustainable. One adult oyster can filter up to 50 gallons of water a day, and the shells capture CO2 and nitrogen.

One problem: we’re not eating too many oysters, but too many of our leftover shells are going to a landfill rather than back to the damaged reefs from where they came. For years, organizations like the Chesapeake Bay Foundation and the Alabama Coastal Foundation have tried to reverse course by collecting leftover shells from restaurants and consumers in order to rebuild damaged reefs in organic, and cost-effective, ways. 

Through largely volunteer efforts, the CBF gathers thousands of bushels of shells yearly; after being cleaned and cured, they are dropped into giant water tanks containing tiny oyster larvae, also known as spat. The spat have a much easier time attaching to leftover shells than they would a man-made limestone or cement barrier. Just one shell can be a home to twelve spat, and it takes only nine months for them to become large enough to join their brothers and sisters in restoring nearby reefs. As a reef expands, it provides shelter, food, and support to all surrounding life, both in water and on land.

Photo: Flickr/U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

So far the CBF has been able to revitalize 80 acres of reef on the Lafayette River in Virginia, and the ACF and the Coalition to Restore Coastal Louisiana have had similar impacts on the reefs in Mobile Bay and the Biloxi Marsh, respectively. The restoration has proven to be a boon for both wildlife and humans, as shells can adapt to rising sea levels and sinking land in a way no cement blockade can. Though these oyster reefs are not where the oysters we eat come from — usually they’re grown on farms nearby — their upkeep is essential to maintaining the delicate balance at play in bodies of water all around the country. 

It takes a lot of shells to fully reconstruct a reef, but obtaining the necessary amount hasn’t been much of a problem under normal circumstances. In 2019, the ACF collected 8,940,105 shells, or approximately 23 acres of coverage. This year, of course, that amount has drastically fallen. Turns out we do most of our oyster eating at restaurants. 

Fortunately there are public shell drop-off areas in many coastal states, and plenty of resources to help you find one that’s closest to you. The onus is now on all of us to eat as many oysters as we can (and return the shells), whether we’re ordering them online or fishing them ourselves. Go ahead and treat yourself — there’s never been a better reason to indulge in a lot of something so luxurious. 🦪

Photo: Yelp

A Grocery Store That Builds Community

By Nicholas Hall

When AJ Droubi immigrated to Houston from Lebanon in 1964, he came to study medicine: while his father and nearly all of his brothers were bakers, his path was leading him to the lab. Droubi studied at the University of Houston and Prairie View A&M, earning two degrees and something of a name for himself as a clinical bacteriologist, ultimately pursuing a medical degree while lending his expertise on tuberculosis to teaching hospitals in Nuevo León and Monterrey, Mexico. But with two years’ worth of clinicals at Houston Methodist Hospital remaining, he switched lanes. 

Droubi’s brother came to Houston in 1979 to open a bakery to serve the city’s growing Middle Eastern community. To help his brother — who at that time had small children and a poor command of English — AJ took a “leave of absence” that has stretched to 41 years.

Their first shop was a former gas station, selling fresh-baked pita bread and not much else. Then the store was split, one side a bakery and the other a small grocery specializing in olive oils, herbs and spices, cheeses and olives, and various Middle Eastern and Mediterranean pantry items. The first inventory was a few cases of canned fava beans; they sold out on the first day. Eventually, the store became a wholesale supplier, providing feta cheese and cured olives to local stores like HEB, Whole Foods and Central Market long before those foods became cemented in Texans’ culinary consciousness. 

After the grocery came prepared foods, expanding to include a cafeteria-style takeout counter selling shawarma and daily regional specialties like molokhia (a dish of braised greens; Droubi says it used to be reserved for Egyptian royalty), mujadara (lentils and rice with caramelized onions), and the ever-popular lamb shank.

As the pandemic has caused restaurants to adjust their models to incorporate everything from curbside takeaway to grocery items on menus, Droubi has felt a bit ahead of the curve. He’s been doing it this way for four decades. “It’s a good model. It’s a safe model,” Droubi says, going on to detail his planned expansion, prompted partially by changing neighborhood demographics.

“Before, it used to be 90% Middle Eastern,” Droubi explains. “Now my base is a lot of Latinos and Americans, and I’m adjusting, and I’m going to do the store to be a really real international store.”

The food counter will expand too, drawing on Droubi’s experience with dining services on the Rice University campus from 2011 to 2016, when his team prepared dishes from a number of cuisines to meet the varied needs of student diners. “I’m going to experiment with that here too, make it international. But we’re not going to lose our Lebanese background, our Lebanese dishes. We can absorb it. It’s going to be exciting for us,” Droubi says.

Exciting for his roster of regular customers, too. “I have another customer right now. If I don’t help her right away, she’ll slap me. And at 79, I’ll fall down right away,” Droubi says, ending our call. And he can’t fall down: there’s too much to do. 🧆

7333 Hillcroft St., Houston, TX; (713) 988-5897; Yelp.

[What’s your favorite specialty grocer? Mine is a Russian spot in East Hollywood. Tell us about yours here. -KS]

This newsletter is edited by Katherine Spiers, host of the podcast Smart Mouth.

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