(This piece is part of the oyster chapter in the upcoming Hugging The Coast book.)
Unlike clam or scallop shells, which can be quite pretty, oyster shells are gnarly, butt-ugly, and unpromising. Oysters can also be absurdly contentious to open, and they’re outright gooey on the inside when you do. Why, it seems, would anyone want to put something so nakedly antagonistic in their mouth?
Was it “a brave fellow what first et an oyster”? Oh no, that was one truly hungry hominid. If there had been a lizard or an artichoke or a termite nest or absolutely anything around that even vaguely resembled food, do you think this poor starving knuckle-dragger would have wasted time banging on gnarly, butt-ugly mollusks? I think not.
Growing up, I didn’t even have to meet an oyster face to face in order to be dissuaded. My entire childhood experience with oysters amounted to once asking my mother, after she’d come home from a dinner party where they’d been served, what eating a raw oyster was like. She told me it was, quote, “like swallowing a big wad of snot.” No further questions, your honor.
As an adult, I ate plenty of oysters: smoked, stewed, Rockefeller-ed, etc., including one very memorable, very gently deep-fried panko-crusted Japanese version. But never, ever raw. I just couldn’t bring myself to voluntarily order a plate of Snot Wads on the Half-Shell and then, of course, have to eat them — in public, no less (unlike some people, I was raised to believe that snot eating is a private matter, best reserved for quiet, reflective, and solitary moments.)
But I’d read so much eloquent waxing about the sensual glories of raw oysters from otherwise credible belletrists, I knew I had to be missing out. Some writers even made the whole thing sound kind of refreshing: lifting an iced shell, spritzing it with lemon and a dash of Tabasco, tilting it back and swallowing the cool/tart/spicy oyster in a gulp. It sounded bracing and briny, in a Clamato Bloody Mary sort of way.
My thoughts began to run to casual tropical fantasies, like imagining myself at a palm-thatched stand, eating a dozen freshly shucked specimens right off the playa of shaved ice, savoring the contrast of the cold shell against my sun-warmed lips as I let the sweet, salty delicacy slip down my grateful throat…
Then, unfortunately, my casual tropical fantasies and I ran smack into Ali-Bab.
Ali-Bab, AKA Henri Babinsky wrote the fascinating, extravagantly opinionated, and very French Encyclopedia of Practical Gastronomy in 1906. Remarkably, his descant on the subject of oysters, though written over a hundred years ago, still has the power to nauseate (italics mine):
“Here is the way of the oyster lovers, who feel that a good oyster deserves to be loved for itself.
Have them opened, but only just at serving time. Select your favorite oysters, plump, fleshy ones, and make sure in each case that the oyster is alive, by testing its reflexes. This is an infallible sign which cannot fool you.
Then, gently remove it from the shell, bring it immediately to the mouth, all naked, without any other accompaniment, and, at once, with one bite, pierce the liver. If the subject responds in the manner you expect of him, your gums should immediately be bathed and your mouth flooded with juice.
Remain like that a moment and then slowly swallow the juice and continue chewing and swallowing the mollusk. Then spark yourself with a swallow of good dry white wine, eat a mouthful of dark bread, either buttered or not, to neutralize the taste buds of the tongue so that you will be ready to enjoy the next oyster.”
After reading that harrowing passage, I had to spark myself with jumper cables, swallow a bottle of plonk, and neutralize the cells of the brain by eating a mouthful of Zoloft and huffing a handful of uncapped Sharpie markers. Only then did the urge to gouge out my eyes with a shrimp fork for having ever read it subside.
It’s not old Hank’s fault, though. He was French, and consequently had that unique French attitude toward food, i.e., absolute cold-blooded ruthlessness. Of course he’d have no qualms about making certain that an oyster was totally awake for the experience of having its liver pierced, just so the oyster could spurt the maximum amount of gum-bathing “juice” in that precious moment before it was slowly eaten alive.
Why would he? This, after all, was the man who shared recipes for Roast Saddle of Fawn, Larks in Shrouds, and my personal favorite, Ortolans in Sarcophagi, which involves (I kid you not) drowning — literally — a dozen tiny songbirds in aged cognac, stuffing them with pureed foie gras, and cooking them inside twelve large, hollowed-out Perigord truffles, making it not only morally repugnant but also, at least in the present time, one of the most expensive dishes imaginable. As if that weren’t decadent enough, the recipe also calls for three thrushes to be roasted and crushed in a meat press — just to enrich the sauce. Oh, by the way, this is an appetizer we’re talking about.
But as you might imagine, I was in even less of a hurry after that to be in the same room with a raw oyster, much less eat one of the bile-spewing pustules. No amount of fresh-squeezed lemon or Tabasco would ever take the taste of Ali-Bab’s lurid, appallingly graphic description of the “way of the oyster lovers” out of my mouth. It would haunt me to the grave and/or to any seafood restaurant I would ever visit, of that I was certain.
And yet I knew, without doubt, that the day of reckoning was coming…
If you liked this article on HuggingtheCoast.Com, you might also enjoy reading:
- Waiter, There’s a Pearl in My Soup (Err…Oyster)!
- Fish For Friday Recipe of the Week: Drago’s Style Charbroiled Oysters Recipe
- Fish For Friday Recipe of the Week: Smoked-Oyster Sticky Rice Stuffing in Lotus Leaf
- Fish For Friday Recipe of the Week: Champagne-Baked Oysters With Braised Leeks and Truffle Cream