The Real Pearl
“every time you eat an oyster, you are consuming a
totally unique, one-of-a kind little bite of the sea.”
Besides Lil Wayne, there are few things I love as much in this world as oysters.
While much has been said and written of oysters (I recently read A Geography of Oysters by Rowan Jacobsen), they remain one creature and food item steeped in mystery and mythology.
The most popularized myth about oysters is that they are an aphrodisiac; this makes sense, given that Aphrodite is said to have emerged from an oyster shell, Casanova consumed dozens at a time, and they actually contain amino acids that can trigger certain hormones in people. While I haven’t ever been turned on by oysters, I do feel pretty passionate about them. There are three main reasons why:
* Oysters taste like the ocean. Jacobsen talks a little bit about how cool this is in A Geography of Oysters, but it’s difficult to appreciate until you really think about it. How many foods taste like their place of birth? When you eat a steak, do you taste the grassy hills where the cow grazed? Or when you have an incredible piece of chocolate, do you taste the forest where the cocoa was harvested? Not so much. Sure, mushrooms can have an “earthy” flavor. But unlike the other few foods that we do compare to their geographical origin, oysters taste like a specific spot in the ocean, with a specific climate, during a particular season and at a specific moment in time. So many different factors had to collide to create the flavor, texture, and experience waiting for you inside that shell, and no two oysters will ever be exactly the same. So every time you eat an oyster, you are consuming a totally unique, one-of-a kind little bite of the sea.
* You don’t get full on oysters. Although they are super rich in nutrients, people don’t eat them just for their healthy properties. Given their small size and (usually) high price tag, we generally don’t consume oysters on their own as a meal. In fact, it would be pretty hard to get full on them (believe me, I’ve tried). So then why do we eat them? For the flavor, pure and simple. And I love that about them. There is something so pure about eating something solely for pleasure. The pleasure doesn’t stop with the taste, though. Even people who don’t like the taste of oysters (I know, it’s hard to believe these people exist) can appreciate all of the ritual and certain specialness of eating these delectable little bivalves: the shucking with a special knife. The setting out on a platter, perhaps on a plate of crushed ice. The various traditional and unconventional condiments—among them lemons, cocktail sauce, horseradish, mignonette, Tabasco, melted butter, Sriracha, aioli—that we serve alongside. The little forks you get at some oyster bars. The simple act of lifting the shell, tipping its contents into your mouth, slurping the juice.
* Eating oysters is good for you, and the planet! When they are cultivated properly, oyster farming is one of the only kinds of agriculture (er, um, aquaculture) that helps improve the environmental landscape. Oysters help filter the water, and maintain balance in the aquasystem. This brings me to another important point, which is also connected to the pleasure of eating oysters. How they are farmed and raised and brought to your plate matters; it matters in terms of the flavor and quality of your oyster, and in terms of its impact on the earth. It’s exciting and fun to learn about oyster cultivation; where they come from, who grows them, what their practices are. In my relatively short time as an ostreaphile, I have gotten so much pleasure out of educating myself about oysters through reading about them, trying different kinds, and talking to people who know more about them than I do. There are so many aspects of oyster culture, from their history to the science and technology of growing them to the art of preparing and serving them.
Not that long ago, I had two really incredible oyster experiences, both of which demonstrated some of the things I’ve been talking about. The first was at Shaffer City Oyster Bar in New York City. Having just finished A Geography of Oysters, which lists Shaffer City as one of its recommended oyster joints, I was keen to try as many of the offerings as possible. I ended up sampling nine different kinds of oysters, which is a greater variety than I’ve ever tried in my life. From the rare Olympias, which can be hard to find on the east coast, to Shibumis, Bras D’Ors, Beau Soleils and Malpeques, it was like an oyster fantasy land, and opened up my eyes to the incredible flavor variety that exists. I was so engrossed in the different tastes I was trying that I barely noticed Mike “The Situation” from the Jersey Shore walk by my table. Having read a little about the beautes I was sampling, I was able to taste and compare and completely immerse myself in the oyster experience. It was heaven on the half shell. I even had some for dessert, because as long as we were in oyster paradiseI just couldn’t bring myself to order chocolate cake or crème brulée.
The next experience I had was in Boston on New Year’s Eve. In A Geography of Oysters Jacobsen lists Island Creek Oysters as an excellent grower, and a favorite kind of oyster to many. Island Creek is located in Duxbury, MA, which is hometown to my boyfriend’s best friend Brad, who we were visiting. Before going to Boston I asked Brad if he was familiar with Island Creeks. Without my knowing, he consulted my boyfriend Ryan, who filled him in on my ostreobsession. Turns out that Brad’s best childhood friend, Chris, works for Island Creek. It just so happens that this same friend also punched Ryan in the face in a drunken misunderstanding three New Year’s Eves ago, after Ryan and Brad basically saved his life. This fortuitous combination of events—Chris having punched Ryan, and now working for Island Creek—was really the stars aligning for me and my love of oysters. Yes, Ryan’s eye had to take one for the team. But three years later it paid rich dividends in the form of 40 fresh oysters plucked straight out of Duxbury Bay making their way into Brad’s kitchen, and subsequently my stomach. It was the first time I’ve had oysters at home—not at a restaurant or oyster bar—and most certainly the freshest little fellas I’ve ever encountered. The crisp, salty brine was cold, the oysters tender, the homemade sauce Brad concocted perfect. Having just spent 5 hours on the Fung Wah bus from Manhattan’s Chinatown to Boston’s, it was beyond a good surprise. As we sat on the floor around Brad’s coffee table, telling stories, laughing, watching the boys take turns shucking, and getting a little tipsy, I tasted each oyster like it was the first one I’d ever tried. That’s just how it is with oysters: each one is a whole new story, a whole new taste, and a brand new place waiting to reveal itself to you.