A food for bravehearts, culinary geographers, slurpers, texture seekers, environmentalists, literary geniuses, and romantics, among many others, the oyster has indelibly captured the world’s attention. It is a very good time to be a bivalve connoisseur.
For 2000 years,
oysters have been cultivated and prized for their unadulterated, tender, plump taste of the sea. The subject of mythology and folklore, beloved bivalve stories travel the continents. Born from oyster sea foam, the Greek goddess Aphrodite emerges from the Ionian Sea on an oyster half shell and is forever more associated with a unique ability to stimulate more than just the appetite. In 1864 on a visit to San Francisco, Mark Twain felt compelled to “destroy oysters done up in all kinds of seductive styles”. His choice of language is no accident.
The meaty bivalve's celestial reputation has skyrocketed and these marine crustaceans are experiencing a renaissance. North America is cultivating oysters along the Pacific and Atlantic shores and the Gulf of Mexico in unprecedented quantities. Easy to sustainably grow and harvest, nutritious and delicious, it is no wonder they are making a welcome comeback. Once an inexpensive food of 19th century working class citizens, the unintended consequences of Industrial Revolution pollution and introduction of foreign species in New World waters, nearly wiped out native American oyster beds. Today, these sea creatures are the subject of farmers seeking to keep local waters clean (each oyster filters 25 gallons of water per day) and sustainable aquaculture practices. Nearly every oyster farmer in America today is an entrepreneurial steward of the environment.
Vintage Oyster Plates
Give me oysters and beer, for dinner every day of the year, and I’ll be fine.
Vintage Oyster Plates
An oyster knife doesn’t have to be expensive, but for the oyster lover, a hand forged gorgeous tool of the trade is an heirloom gift. A sturdy handle to help provide leverage and a sharp blade nearly universally insures success…if you can’t shuck it, toss it, or distract another shucker and add it to his or her bucket.
Learn to Shuck
Prepare a bed of ice on a serving tray to keep the oysters fresh until serving--no more than 2 hours ahead of time and return to refrigerator on ice until ready to serve.
Use an old stiff toothbrush to scrub the grit off the oysters. If not well scrubbed, the grit may find its way into the shell during shucking.
Rinse the oysters under the coldest running water possible.
If right handed, put the glove on left hand. Place an oyster with the rounded, cup side to your palm and the flat side up. The hinge, or pointy end, should be facing toward your chest. Alternatively, place a thick, tightly woven kitchen towel on the kitchen counter and use the left hand to hold on tight to the oyster by pressing down on the cloth (leave plenty of thick cloth between the oyster and left hand).
Insert the oyster knife into the hinge at a 45 degree angle. When it seems wedged in, begin gently twisting the knife to separate the bottom and top shells. You will feel it when the hinge pops. Avoid sticking the knife too deep into the shell to avoid damaging the meat. Gently slide the knife around the shell’s edge to sever the adductor muscle. Wiggle off the top flat shell.
Pick up the oyster and carefully slide the blade below the meat to disconnect the muscle from the bottom shell.
Try not to tip the shell from side to side or turn it over, or you will lose the delicious liquor (juices) inside the oyster.
Open the oyster carefully and remove the top shell. Check for grit or small pieces of shell and remove if necessary. Gently run the knife under the fleshy meat to separate it from the bottom shell, but leave the meat on the shell for serving.
In A Geography of Oysters,
Rowan Jacobson notes, “Different oysters suit different occasions and different people. If you haven’t yet been wowed by oysters, you may well have been dallying with the wrong ones.” His lively ode to bivalves is intent on coaxing out the oyster eater in each of us:
The Sweet Tooth
Salt? Yuck! But there is nothing quite so divine as the creamy sweetness of a superplump oyster. Forget Eastern oysters.
The Grail Seeker
Wellfleets? Westcotts? Been there, done that. You’ve had all the common oysters and want to taste new ones no one has heard of. And you’re willing to travel.
You eat with your eyes as much as your belly, and you love the gemlike shells of some oysters.
The Clean Freak
You prefer filter feeders from pristine waters.
The Minister of Silly Names
For you, half the fun is the goofy things oysters are called.
The Wild One
Forget those hatchery-raised wimps, you want a natural-set oyster that survived the one-in-a-million journey from egg to adult.
You want the best oysters in the world, price be damned.
Those potent, briny, musky oysters are as overblown as an Australian Shiraz. You like to savor oysters with wine, so you want subtle mineral flavors, not metal and salt and mud.
Bring on the tangiest, muskiest, biggest, most challenging oysters possible. You don’t scare easy.