To The Oyster
I have enough oyster memories to fill an essay and, frankly, I just might do that some day. But those memories aren't really about eating oysters, per se, as I only just learned to like them a couple of years ago, when presented with a barely-dressed little gem at The Catbird Seat, one of Nashville's most elusive and acclaimed restaurants. It was my breakthrough oyster. In the way of the cannabis, when many of us have to give it a few tries before it works, I've been trying oysters periodically over the last ten years to see if they might finally take effect on me, so that I, too, could join the vast legions of bivalve lovers with their tiny forks and Champagne toasts.
The great food writer M.F.K. Fisher published a collection of oyster centric essays in 1941 under the title Consider the Oyster. She also was a late comer to the sensuous pleasures of sliding a still-live briny creature down her gullet - and liking it - noting that the texture alone is an acquired experience for most, not to mention the strong sea flavors, the risk, the aliveness of it all.
In "Love and Death Among the Molluscs" she writes, "An oyster leads a dreadful but exciting life." Then continues in her whimsical way with a description of its lifecycle, from the free-swimming larval spat to the just-shucked last rites of the delicacy on your plate. From this I learned, and remain fascinated, that oysters are true biological bisexuals.
"For about a year this oyster - our oyster - is a male, fertilizing a few hundred thousand eggs as best he can without ever knowing whether they swim by or not. Then one day, maternal longings surge between his two valves in his cold guts and gills and all his crinkly fringes. Necessity, that well-known mother, makes him one. He is a she."
I've been around oysters all my life. Growing up in Florida, they were widely available. More than once my father brought home a bushel, set up shop on the back patio made of old uneven bricks and gated by six-feet tall iron bars, and shucked the oysters one by one for his five adult children and their spouses and his young grandchildren, who are closer in age to me and my sisters than our elder half-siblings. As a kid I loved the togetherness, the celebration over oysters, but was never adventurous enough to put one in my mouth. Later, in my early twenties, I worked at New York City's Aquagrill where the mom and pop staple still offers upwards of 25 different oysters daily. I couldn't eat them. I didn't even like fish before I started waiting tables there. They did turn me into a fish appreciator (when fresh and properly prepared), but the mollusks never grabbed me. I knew their flavors though, and could guide any guest through the map of mild, sweet and creamy bite-size to the corpulent, briny beasts that require portioning just to get it all down.
These days I find myself looking forward to Thursday evenings when I can indulge in the weekly oyster special at my favorite Florence eatery, Odette. Chef Josh Quick assisted me on the photoshoot, taking time to shuck this Blue Point for Pig&Vine. Like all condiments at Odette, the cocktail sauce is made in-house, and rides shotgun to one of Chef's mignonettes. House-baked crackers, something like a gourmet Wheat Thin, accompany the naked bivalves. Add a cold bottle of Louis de Grenelle pink sparkling Saumur and suddenly everything is right with the world.
Tomorrow I head out on a 10-day road trip through parts of Texas and down to New Orleans before heading back to Florence. I bet I find some oysters on the way. I'll be posting highlights of all the tasty discoveries, here and on Facebook and Instagram over the next couple of weeks. Follow me. It's going to be epic.
@amyinalabama on Instagram Pig&Vine on Facebook
From Lewis Carroll's Through the Looking Glass, the Walrus and the Carpenter oyster feast:
"Oh Oysters, come and walk with us," The Walrus did beseech. "A pleasant walk, a pleasant talk, Along the briny beach:"
...four young Oysters hurried up, All eager for the treat:
Four other Oysters followed them And yet another four;
And thick and fast they came at last,
And more, and more, and more– All hopping through the frothy waves, And scrambling to the shore.
The Walrus and the Carpenter Walked on a mile or so, And then they rested on a rock Conveniently low: And all the little Oysters stood And waited in a row.
"A loaf of bread," the Walrus said, "Is what we chiefly need: Pepper and vinegar besides Are very good indeed– Now if you're ready, Oysters dear, We can begin to feed."
"O Oysters," said the Carpenter, "You've had a pleasant run! Shall we be trotting home again?" But answer there came none– And this was scarcely odd, because They'd eaten every one.