My introduction to oysters came when I lived in Boston in college, and had a roommate (let’s call her “Ellen”) who was one of the most unattractive specimens of humanity I have encountered in my years on earth. I am not referring to her physical appearance; I’m not that shallow. Her significant deficits had mostly to do with manners, and with the fact that she kept a small refrigerator in our extremely small dorm room, from which she regularly withdrew and inhaled various edibles ranging from liverwurst and cream cheese sandwiches to ice cream. She often consumed these items in her bed, never offered to share, and frankly made such a display of dripping, chomping barbarousness that any appetite I might have had was crushed.
On one occasion she suggested that we eat out together (having made it clear that she was not paying for my food), and we adjourned to a seafood restaurant in the city where she proceeded to order a plate of oysters on the half shell and slurp them with such glutinous avidity that I had to look away. Never, I vowed, would I eat one of those things. I knew that my parents loved them, and that they were, along with caviar, dry wines, and escargot, things consumed by “sophisticates.” I knew that my refusal to sit at a table with them labeled me as the proliest of proles, but still, I could not lose the memory of Ellen slurping from shell after shell, mouth open, head tilted back in swine-like ecstasy. I had a form of Bivalve Mollusk Post Traumatic Stress Disorder from which it would take me years to recover.
Later in life, reassured by the safety and relative quiet of the local University Club, I tried smoked oysters as part of a brunch. They were okay, not slimy, briny or phlegm-like, and tasting so strongly of smoke that they could really have been small pieces of goat, rabbit or emu. They were also, frankly, nothing to write home about. It was a step, but the earth had not yet moved. I also read M.F.K. Fisher’s delightful Consider the Oyster, which I enjoyed tremendously, but which did not in any way move me closer to considering the actual, intentional consumption of oysters.
In the winter of 1999, when I made my first annual trip to Florida, I cautiously observed the omnipresence of all things Oyster. There were oyster boats in the bay, with men working their tongs to gather the freshest and best the Gulf of Mexico had to offer. Oysters appeared on every restaurant menu, fried, in stew or on the half shell, and most driveways and restaurant parking lots were covered with literally tons of oyster shells. Someone was eating all those oysters, and apparently enjoying them. My parents ate them, and rhapsodized about them, but I was not going to be taken in by the same people who had tried to get me to eat snails, in Paris. I watched and waited.
This year, I had my Oyster Coup de Foudre. As I become increasingly obsessed with food and cooking on a plane more transcendent than crock pot stews and casseroles, I often read about really adventurous cooking and eating, from Thomas Keller’s reverence for sweetbreads to Simon Hopkinson’s delight in kidney and tripe. Michael Symon loves to use beef cheek and organ meats as often as possible, using meat “from nose to tail,” and Anthony Bourdain is often on television picking the marrow from bones, sucking the meat from shrimp heads, and enjoying slices of head cheese or chunks of poisonous blow-fish. Who was I, if I really believed in exploring the world of food, to reject the oyster in its own backyard?
So, I ate them fresh and fried at the St. George Island Chili Cook-off, and fell totally in love. They were sweet, and yielding; not rubbery like clams can be, and more flavorful than I generally find shrimp to be. They offered themselves to me with no impediments, no shell, no slime, just plump little cushions of oyster flesh surrounded by some sort of cracker crust. I tried dipping them in hot sauce, which created a very nice contrast to the sweetness of the meat, but found that I really just liked them on their own.
You know how it is when you fall in love; there is never enough contact with the object of your affection. Every little look is meaningful, and the time that you are separated by the exigencies of work or ridiculously empty time spent with other people is really just something to be endured with anxiety and anticipation. The next night, I tried oyster stew, creamy, buttery and full of little oyster pillows. Two days later, I ordered a Fried Oyster Basket at The Apalachicola Seafood Grill, a no-nonsense purveyor of seafood in Apalachicola. (which, by the way, offers “the world’s largest fried grouper sandwich”). I briefly considered the Oyster Po’ Boy, but felt brief and irrational panic at the idea of so much bread, sauce and vegetation coming between me and my oysters. I made the right call, and once again savored the crisp exterior, tender interior, and overwhelming sense of rightness that came from a pile of fried mollusks.
I am now a convert, and although its really not advisable to eat oysters in Michigan, I am willing to entertain a long-distance relationship until I head south once again. My only unanswered question involves the purported aphrodisiac qualities of oysters. Traveling, as I was, with my parents and my son, and without my husband, it would have been beyond inappropriate for me to have experimented with my potentially oyster-enhanced libido. If the passion and intensity with which I love the oysters themselves is any indication, though, there may be something to the myth. Perhaps next year I can persuade the actual human man in my life to join me on the coast, and if I can tear myself away from the oysters long enough, I may have more to report.