“T’was a bold man ate the first oyster,” or so says Jonathan Swift. I’m not sure I’m buying that one. The first oyster I ever saw/ate looked pretty damn good to me. Of course it was bathed in hot half and half, stewed amongst melted globules of sweet, salted butter. The oysters, from a can, were as good as we could get in Minnesota at the time, but it was good enough for me – I was hooked.
It wasn’t until years later when I moved to Puget-opolis that I really got crazy about oysters, but not without a few stops along the way. My first encounter with raw oysters on the half shell was during happy hour at a Mississippi-side restaurant in Minneapolis called Bristol. I’m sure I committed the venal sin of slathering them with cocktail sauce, but paired with an icy Grain Belt beer they were tasty nonetheless.
Another distant, happy memory is knocking back a dozen softball sized Gulf of Mexico bivalves at a South Florida raw bar with a couple of Anchor Steam beers and the next day knocking them dead in a 10K race that was actually televised on Wide World of Sports, back when those things actually happened. Oysters have been credited for centuries with performance enhancing qualities, apparently not all of which are accomplished while horizontal. It was around this time that I began to understand the concept of power food. You know, sweetbreads, clams, heart, tripe, brain, trotters. That sort of thing.
Of course one can die from eating raw oysters, and not just from hepatitis. While on honeymoon in November 1987, I was finally lured by the many signs in France announcing that “huitres est arrivee!” Despite having only had them served to me on a platter of crushed ice with a small fork, I decided to buy a dozen at a local market, not realizing that I lacked both the knowledge and the implement necessary to successfully spread their shells. Armed with a sharp, serrated paring knife, I split open my palm and innoculated it with nasty oyster bacterium, which in two days resulted in a raging infection. Unable to get the local chemist to understand my plight, I finally showed him my throbbing hand and exclaimed “Huitres!” He understood immediately and put me straight.
Upon moving to these salty shores here in the upper left corner, I quickly obtained a proper oyster knife (which has miraculously remained in my prized possession for some 22 years now) and eventually mastered the art of hardcore shucking. The proper and skillful shucking of an oyster is one of the few things I feel strongly that every adult male should master. Others include tying a bow-tie without looking and casting a dry fly. After that, it’s up to you. Oh yeah, maybe grill a steak.
Of course there about 365 different ways to have oysters, one for each day of the year. You can have them stewed or sauteed, fried, grilled, scalloped, stuffed or even Rockefellered, and god knows how else. If you are asking me though, the best way is simply ice-cold and raw with a few drops of good mignonette sauce, made from good quality champagne vinegar, chopped shallots and cracked black pepper. Cocktail sauce is for rookies. At my favorite oyster bar, The Walrus and the Carpenter in Seattle’s Ballard neighborhood, if you ask for cocktail sauce they tell you to take a hike. Mignonette and fresh grated horseradish are the only preparations allowed. Or lemon, but that’s it. There is one wine perfect with raw oysters and that is a Muscadet from the Loire Valley. Others will suffice, but Muscadet is unfailing.
It occurs to me that maybe some of my gentle readers have never needed to shuck their own oysters, a circumstance I at once understand and lament. For critters with neither a brain nor a nervous system, they are wily indeed. Wily and relentlessly protective of their precious essence. To shuck an oyster, do thusly: grab the bivalve with a rubberized glove or wrap a washcloth around it to protect your hand from being bloodied on the gnarly shell. Gripping your blunt instrument firmly in one hand, find the hinge side of the oyster. Assertively insert the tip of your shucker into the firm, tight muscle of the hinge. Don’t be overly aggressive, but don’t be a wilting flower either – this is one time you need to be a man, regardless of your personal gender. The muscle may resist you at first – that’s OK, it’s the sign of a good lively oyster. Upon meeting resistance, you can achieve your best result not by overpowering, but by being persistent. You might try giving your implement a little wiggle, all the while maintaining even pressure. Eventually the hinge will relent and all at once you will plunge into the sweet slippery meat within. With a quick flip of the wrist, pop off the top, sever the attaching muscle on the bottom shell and flip the oyster over on its back to be sure it is free and clear. Clear any debris. Keep as much briny nectar in the shell as you possibly can. Lather, rinse, repeat. After a dozen or so experiences you will be a master shucker.
While I am particularly fond of raw oysters on the half shell, variety is the spice of life (or so they say). Sometimes we all need a change. For years now I have been working on perfecting a recipe for fried oysters, with only middling success. Despite many efforts, my fried oysters too often ended up on the mushy side or with the breading falling off, unsatisfying in myriad ways. That was, until recently! Reading through my copy of “Fish and Shellfish” by James Peterson (a necessary instructional manual for anyone serious about cooking seafood) I learned that fried oysters need complete submersion in hot oil to achieve that golden brown exterior and wonderful crunchiness that perfectly complements the rich creaminess of the bivalve. Instructions on achieving the perfect fried oyster follow below.
Alternatively, this preparation would make for a splendid version of the N’awlins oyster po boy. Toast a nice hunk of split, airy baguette (not the chewy kind) slather generously with some homemade remoulade sauce and pile with finely shaved iceberg lettuce and hot, deep-fried panko oysters. Cheri! That’s some good eatin’.
Of course oysters these days have become, like many fruits de mer, prohibitively expensive. Fourteen lousy bucks I spent the other day for a dozen Kumamotos! True,they were fantastic and in perfect season, but still, that is a lotta do-re-mi, especially if you consider that my purchase constituted perhaps a quarter pound of actual oyster meat (you do the math). Once upon a time not all that long ago, oysters were considered a cheap protein source for the poverty stricken. They were ubiquitous along virtually every saltwater shore, flourishing without cultivation or special harvesting requirements like boats or nets. All they needed was cold, clear salinity. Of course we managed through greed and ignorance to screw the pooch on that one. Today, consider yourself fortunate if you live near a fishmonger that stocks them fresh, regardless of the price.
Eating oysters, as with nearly everything worth doing, benefits from certain Swift-ian boldness. It’s a lesson that even after half a century I keep re-learning – no small surprise given that I paddle against a swift current of nature and nurture. But the pay-off is nearly always worth it.
In past missives, this has often been the point where I benefit from reader input. Got a great idea about oysters or a favorite recipe? Remember your first time? Go ahead, dish.
James Peterson’s Perfect Fried Oyster
1-2 jars fresh shucked, extra small oysters (or, go shuck yourself)
1 cup well-seasoned flour
1-2 eggs, beaten with water into a thin wash
Chopped Italian parsely
1-2 cups Japanese panko bread crumbs
Large quantity fresh canola or peanut oil (maybe a quart)
Drain and rinse oysters in cold water
Roll oysters in flour
Add parsley to the egg wash, dip oysters in egg wash
Roll oysters in panko crumbs
Return to refrigerator for 30 minutes
If you don’t have a deep-fryer (and who does?) find a deep dutch oven style cast iron pot. Put in the oil and bring to medium high. The oil needs to be good and hot. A bit of panko dropped in should sizzle briskly. Working in small batches place the chilled, breaded oysters into the hot oil. Dropping in too many at once will reduce the temperature of the oil and will not give the desired result of a well-browned exterior and just done inside. If the oil is sufficiently hot and deep enough to submerge the oysters without crowding, it should only take 2-3 minutes for each batch. Remove carefully with a spider web strainer and drain on paper towels.
Serve hot with fresh lemon and an ice-cold Spanish albarino white wine.