LEISURE LETTER 43: A DISSERTATION ON OYSTERS
Let’s talk about oysters . . .
They’re these awfully strange creatures who spawn in clumpy, muddy growths called reefs, in the protected waters along most coastlines. Humans culture them as well, on their human farms. The individual oyster consists of a calcified outer shell containing within it a slimy, booger-like organism. Like somebody sneezed into one of these shells. The word oyster itself is derived from the latin Ostrea – a genus of edible marine molluscs, filter feeders with an insatiable appetite for plankton and other specialties. The ancient Romans went nuts for these things. And so do we.
I first became aware of the oyster as a youngster on the east coast, exploring the abundant, subtidal marshes fixed within the Chesapeake Bay. It just so happens the blue crab I was attempting to snatch up in those days, enjoyed lurking about the half-exposed, seagrimed oyster reefs. Being curious, I would reach down and carefully procure a shell, examine it close up. It never occurred to me then that you might want to eat one of these things. They stunk. At the time I had only been alive about five years, and I didn’t know much about anything – I was there for the crabbies after all.
As I got older and after I left the bay for good, I soon learned that oysters can be eaten, and there are many ways to do so. For our purpose we’ll be focusing on the raw style, which shouldn’t dissuade you from dining on those of the cooked variety – the famous Rockefeller’s, fried oysters, Oysters Au Gratin, oysters steamed and dipped in butter, and of course the marvelous and esoteric Oysters Bingo. If you haven’t already, you’ll find out soon enough.
I’ll start with the basics: oyster on a cracker. It’s the preferred method of the east coast elites, or at least the ones I know. This is all it takes:
1.) Extract oyster from shell
2.) Place on cracker of choice and consume
BOOM! It’s crunchy. Salty. Slimy. Delicious!
Next is quite obvious. Are you ready? Ok, here we go: Oyster with fresh squeezed lemon. This time you leave the oyster on its half-shell bed, give the lemon a good squeeze. Not that hard! That’s wwwaaaayyyy too sour. You give it a little squeeze. Then you suck it down straight off the shell, BANGO! Simple citrus seduction.
How about the oyster with horseradish? He’s real mean . . . A real tough guy, you know? It’s nearly the same as above, except you apply horseradish rather than lemon. Who would’ve guessed? If you’re looking to blow your sinuses out . . . shed a few tears, then really shovel on the radish – it’s a wild ride. Strong. Pungent. Powerful!
The fancy cats enjoy their oysters done up in a fine mignonette. Most people fancy being fancy from time to time. The east coast elites sneer at this kind of behavior, and the fancy cats sneer right back . . . But who cares? Vinegar’s great if you know how to use it.
This brings me to the oyster with cocktail sauce. Pretty self explanatory. Before giving it a shot, just ask yourself – Do I like cocktail sauce? If the answer is yes, then you’re in for a real treat. Now keep in mind that it’s perfectly acceptable to combine any and all of these methods. I never hesitate. I like to blast myself with all of the above, only to leave the oyster bar swimming in a saucy-headed stupor. It doesn’t get any better.
Now for my personal flavorite, a relatively newfound perspective on the art of suckin down oysters. I was back on the east coast believe it or not. The behemoth known as Los Angeles had chewed me up to a pulp and spit me out, like a bad oyster, whereupon I landed at this ancient seafood dive on the Virgina Beach pier. Ocean Eddie’s. It seemed like a quaint place to spend one’s time – warm, musty, dim-lit, smelling of the sea, while possessing the suffusive essence of a pirate ship or a piece of driftwood: I got a job as a server immediately and started working in the kitchen as well. What a kitchen! So one day this big family struts in – from El Salvador – they walk across the restaurant and occupy a few of the large round tables on the deck, overlooking the water. Some seagulls sat down with them. And I was their server. Let’s get to the point . . . These folks start firing off! –
They just keep going, and the ticket keeps growing. As soon as I knew what was going on I was back in the kitchen in a frenzy, trying to recruit some boys to shuck all these things. Raw oysters don’t just come ready to eat on the half shell . . . You gotta shuck em’ first. And believe me, it’s a dangerous job. If you don’t know what shucking is, just look it up . . . I’m running out of space here. By then I had a team of six fellas shucking oysters for me, and I kept on running the platters out . . . on the double . . . stopping here and there to catch my breath. As I’m handing off the 10th dozen rack of rocks, the patriarch of the family from El Salvador asks if I’d like to have some beer with them, care to suck down a few oysters? – Now I’m on the job, you see, a beer is out of the question, but an oyster sounds great, I’d love one! So what does he do? He picks up an oyster on the half shell, douses it in lime. Then . . . he takes a fairies pinch of salt, a speck of snow in September, sprinkles it on the slimy limey, and shoves it my way, nodding his head. Muchas gracias amigo, I said. Then I sucked it down right there. BOOM! Best oyster I’ve ever had.