Sunday, December 1, 2013

Introducing the oyster

This post has been cross-posted at Derfwad Manor. Go visit and read more writers, brought to you by the incomparable Mrs. G!

My introduction to oysters was not a promising one. My father liked oyster stew. He was the only one in my family who did. I don’t remember what occasion sparked his appetite, but often on weekend afternoons he would eat things that he enjoyed in solitary pleasure. Like sardines, spread on saltine crackers. Peanut brittle. Canned tamales from Old El Paso. Or oyster stew.

It came in a can; it was cream colored and had a rich smell, but I thought it was gross, how the grey shapeless oysters swam and bobbed, hidden in the milky broth.

Oyster bed, date unknown. Digital collection, University of Washington Libraries
Years later, I moved to the Pacific Northwest, to live with a man whose family traditionally ate oyster stew on Christmas Eve. That year, I bought bottled oysters at the fish market, from the canneries on Willapa Bay. I tipped them into a saucepan of sizzling melted butter and after the liquid had thickened, I added good whole milk and turned down the flame to a simmer.

I was in love, so I ate the stew and called it good, liking its rich warmth on a cold damp Washington night. But oyster stew proved to be too much richness for me. By the time spring came, I had moved out to an apartment of my own.

Oysters at Quality Seafood, Redondo Beach, CA
I prefer my oysters raw.

I ate my first raw oyster in a little oyster bar at the Pike Place Market, with a man whose gentle drawl revealed his Baton Rouge upbringing. He was tall, blonde and lithe, almost willowy, with the same attenuated androgyny that made David Bowie so attractive in those days. He was a fearless climber and he had a heedlessness that drew me to follow him, trying everything, including cocaine.

At the shucking bar, Acme Oyster House, New Orleans
We drove one summer to New Orleans, and sat watching the shuckers at Acme Oyster Bar, from stools at the cool zinc counter, drunk on Dixie beer,  and  we greedily swallowed fresh oysters tingling with chili sauce and horseradish, filling our wicked bellies.

Like most relationships founded on reckless behavior, ours followed a slow-motion arc of self-destruction that ranged across the continent and over a year’s time. The quarrels in hotel bars, tawdry betrayals, and drunken long distance calls came to a final and merciful end when he dumped me for a woman in Wisconsin. When it was all over, I managed to kick the cocaine habit, but I still loved raw oysters.

I was talking with my husband the other day, and I asked him if he could remember the first time we ate oysters on the half-shell together. Neither of us could pinpoint it. We remember where we ate sushi when we were dating, but oysters? It slipped our memories.

“Really, though,” he said, “you were the one who introduced me to so many new foods.  You introduced me to mussels. I grew up in Florida, but I didn’t eat oysters until I came to Seattle.”

It surprised me to think that my well-traveled anthropologist husband credits me with widening his world – at least, the food part - for surely I credit him with vastly expanding my own.

But perhaps it’s true. We’ve both come a long way from where we started. Because of him, I’ve traveled to Europe. I’ve lived in Los Angeles. I’ve listened to music I’d never had heard, left to my own tastes. I’ve learned more about the art world.  I’ve been diverted from following a single-minded career pathway, to being something of a Swiss Army Knife professional, someone who can do a little bit of everything.

And then there are oysters. Together, he and I have slurped oysters in so many settings. On a dockside picnic table at the Seattle waterfront.  In the tiled catacombs beneath Grand Central Station. We’ve prised them from their shells on a sandy California beach, and drizzled them delicately with mignonette at white-linen tables, as champagne chilled in a bucket beside us. We’ve had them as bossam, with oysters, slabs of steamed pork belly, and chile-pickled radish wrapped in napa cabbage leaves, in a Koreatown dive, washed down with harsh soju.

One warm summer we watched a hurricane blow in from the Gulf of Mexico, sheltered on a screened-in porch while we dabbed cocktail sauce on mild Apalachicolas. Another warm summer we ate flat Belons in a touristy Montparnasse cafĂ© – perhaps ill-advised, since no other oyster bars were open in Paris in July. They were still delicious.

At Wright's Oyster House, Borough Market, London
We’ve slipped tiny Kumamotos and sea urchin roe into our waiting mouths, with bamboo chopsticks in a master itamae’s zen-like retreat in Beverly Hills. In London, we drank pints of porter with our Colchesters, and brown bread with butter. Here in Los Angeles we’ve eaten Prince Edward Island oysters in high class expense-account restaurants, and warm-water Bajas on the San Pedro docks, among bearded bikers drinking micheladas from cayenne-crusted plastic goblets.

At Ports o' Call Village, San Pedro, CA
His oyster tastes are more eclectic than mine; he likes them charcoal grilled as well as raw. He’ll take a fried oyster po’boy.

Fried oysters
He likes them Rockefeller, Casino, or Angels on Horseback. He even likes smoked oysters, wizened brown morsels  toothpicked from a can. I don’t mind these concoctions, but I prefer them raw. 

With Peruvian scallops, at the Water Grill in Santa Monica

A tray of oysters on the half-shell is a lovely thing to contemplate. The shells array clockwise on a bed of ice in a battered aluminum tin dewed with condensation. A shucker with an eye for presentation may drape fronds of seaweed decoratively about them. Nestled at the center will be a small tub of tomato cocktail sauce, and wedges of lemon to squeeze over the open shells. We always ask for horseradish, if none is supplied.
“Apalachicola, Florida” August 29, 1947, Florida Division of Library and Information Services
In workingman’s establishments, saltine crackers and Tabasco sauce are supplied, while in high-toned joints, you might get mignonette -  red wine vinegar with chopped shallots -  or ponzu sauce. Maybe even fantastic things like cucumber-flavored granita and grains of caviar.

A platter from Fishing With Dynamite restaurant, in Manhattan Beach, CA
You can tip a well-shucked oyster, with the abductor muscle properly cut away, directly into your mouth, but if you’re a bit more refined, you can use a delicate cocktail fork. Either way, don’t forget to sip the liquid from the shell – it holds a wealth of delicate flavor.

Bite down and chew to really taste it, don’t let it slither down your gullet whole. The texture is important – creamy or maybe firm with a slight crunch. Oysters vary – some are strong and some mild, some saltier than others. The flavor can be meaty, grassy or sweet or almost metallic. At a well-stocked place, you can try several varieties at once and compare them.

But overall, when you taste an oyster, you’re tasting the sea.

At Acme Oyster House, in New Orleans
I have never disgraced good oysters by eating them as “shooters,” which were invented to goad drunks into feats of further foolishness. An oyster shooter is pointless, drowning the delicate bivalve in vodka and sliding it down the throat without tasting it.

I want more oysters before my life ends. I’ve never had Olympias, those tiny rare oysters native to Washington State’s Hood Canal. I’d like to loll in the shade of a palapa, beachside in Ensenada, and marvel at the fabled giants that grow there. I imagine the lush green paradise of New Zealand, where the oysters are named for Coromandel, like exotic jewels. I’d love to visit an izakaya in Japan, where oysters are simmered in soy.
And maybe I’ll even make oyster stew again someday, for Christmas Eve.


ifthethunderdontgetya™³²®© said...

Raw fresh oysters are divine.

JLK Jewelry said...

I just posted on Derfwad Manor too. Lovely post about a favorite food.

smalltownme said...

My mother made oyster stew on Christmas Eve. I was not a fan of that, but raw oysters? Oh my, I love them.