An Oyster Story
July 12, 2015
I was 20 when I tasted my first oyster. I grew up in the Midwest, far from the sea, and oysters didn't figure largely in the meals of my childhood.
I celebrated my twentieth birthday on Christmas Day in Montpellier, France, the guest of a family graciously sharing their Christmas dinner with a lonely foreign student. The appetizer was a plate of raw oysters, grey, quivering blobs sitting in their shells. And at the heart of the first oyster of my life there was a pearl. If I had been more aware of symbols I might have seen it as a pretty durned good sign: finding a pearl in an oyster on my twentieth birthday—in France. But since it was my first oyster ever, how was I to know whether this was a special sign or just a routine thing? Maybe one could expect to find a pearl in every fifth oyster. Or every tenth. (It wasn't much of a pearl, but I did have a Montpellier jeweler fasten a loop onto it and put it on a charm bracelet. Which I lost a year later while making out with a French boyfriend on a picnic. Easy come, easy go was the way I thought of that lost pearl.)
Since then I have liked oysters a lot, but I haven't eaten a lot of oysters. Here are the problems with oysters: getting them fresh; opening them; having enough of them. I know myself well enough to know that I will not become a shucker of oysters. No matter how many times I watch an experienced shucker and see how easy it is to position the sharp knife in just the right spot on the hinge, I am scared off by the thought of that knife slipping and cutting into the web between my thumb and index finger—or cutting any part of my precious hands. So oysters and I will not be participating in that do-it-yourself thing.
This leaves restaurants. Well, have you priced restaurant oysters lately? At two or three bucks a pop, you can be well into a dinner-sized bill before you even begin to sate your hunger for that hint of the sea, that metallic taste at the back of your tongue. I can't bear to stop eating oysters once I've started—unless I'm full. Unless I feel that I have actually eaten a sufficient number of oysters.
This can happen only in an all-you-can-eat situation—not a frequent occurrence, believe you me.
Last fall we went to Wolfville, Nova Scotia, for DevourFest, the Festival of Food Films. One of the films shown was "Shuckers," about the young men (maybe one or two women among them) who take part in shucking contests. They are like rock stars. The documentary followed the contest circuit showing all the handsome dudes who glory in shucking faster and more cleanly than each other. Lots of beer-fueled competition. The doc was great fun. As soon as the film ended, the DevourFest host announced that right outside, in the lobby of the theatre, the film's stars were going to be shucking oysters—for US. Free. Five hundred freshly harvested oysters were sitting in tubs right outside the theatre doors. Oysters. For ME (forget the "us" part).
Sure enough, a station had been set up and the four dudes had already started shucking, loading the opened oysters onto half a dozen platters at the front of the station. How did it happen that I was at the front of the crowd? Just luck, I guess. I started eating oysters, foregoing any of the condiments (mignonette, hot sauce, lemon) and just downing the oysters one after another.
After my first dozen I had the feeling I was the only one eating. Surely not, because I could sense the crowd all around me. With an oyster in one hand I paused to see what was going on. I was indeed surrounded by the people who had attended the film. There were fifty-odd potential oyster eaters clustered around the station, shoving and crowding to get close to the platters of oysters so they could . . . so they could . . . so they could take pictures! Yes, every single person in the mob—except me—was holding up a fancy phone in order to shoot photos of oysters. I was the only one eating them.
In a still pulled from the YouTube video of DevourFest, you can see the forest of raised arms with a phone in every hand. And if you look very closely, you can see a curly grey head near the platters, bent down to partake of yet another gift from the sea. I've illustrated this posting with that curly grey head. You can't see the oyster in my hand.
I've already made plans to attend the November 2015 DevourFest. I know there's no chance that they'll re-show "Shuckers" and bring in another batch of 500 oysters, but you never know . . .
And now, here's my recipe for oysters: Eat your first dozen plain, in order not to waste time fiddling with condiments. For the second dozen, squeeze on a little lemon juice. And once you're on to the third dozen, you can alternate hot sauce with mignonette sauce or whatever other exciting additives have been provided. Me? I still like them best with nothing except their own oyster essence.