An Ode to Oysters
Oysters. Seldom does a food that has been held as a staple in human diet evoke such conflicting reactions. One would think that after 160,000 years of being on human’s proverbial menu that they would become just another entree. A brackish dish to be taken or left without care. But apathy towards the stone colored mollusk rarely exists in our time. They are either loved or loathed; a delight to spot on the menu, or an abomination to be avoided at all cost. For the poor souls that abhor the briny meat of the oyster, this account is not for you. It is for enterprising individuals with an appreciation for the salty slurp that resides inside the rocky exterior of the oyster.
Raw oysters at home invoke a bit of intimidation for the uninitiated. They are something to be ordered in a restaurant at the beach. “Give me a half dozen!” you demand, and they come on a shallow tray filled with crushed ice, in a circular pattern around ramekins filled with horseradish and ketchup and sliced lemon. Pre-shucked by a teenager making minimum wage and reeking of ocean water. You spoon the condiments into the shell, sling back the phlegmy mass and swallow, like a sorority girl slamming a jello shot. You are satisfied, repeating the process five more times until a pile of shells is all that’s left.
But there is a better way. Oysters should be more than a ritual performed at beachside seafood restaurants, they are the perfect way to waste away a summer afternoon. Grocery stores across the United States sell fresh oysters. And luckily for us, 85% of oysters sold across the US are of the preferred north atlantic ocean oyster Crassostrea virginicas. When buying, you need to be sure that they are still alive. Live oysters will have a closed shell, or a slight gap in their shell that will close when the oyster is jostled. Any oysters that stay open when tapped should be discarded. They should be eaten soon after purchasing, but may be stored in the fridge for a few days if covered with a damp towel. Don’t store them in an airtight container; we don’t want to suffocate them, and be sure that they are still alive before shucking.
When the time comes to pry the oysters from their rugged shell we must first give them a quick bath. The oysters have been resting in sand and clinging to rocks, and must be cleansed of any debris. This isn’t a difficult task and only requires a quick toss in a colander under the kitchen tap. When ready, gather a tray and line it with ice. This is where we are going to place our shucked oysters. Go look in the very back of your kitchen utensil drawer and grab your oyster knife. It’s the one with a short bulbous handle and a pointed blunt dull blade. No other knife will do; a butter knife won’t be able to wedge itself into the hinge, and a sharper knife will only result in trip to the emergency room on an empty stomach.
Once you’ve found your knife look at the oyster. You’ll notice these creatures have a definite top and bottom, one side flatter, the other cupped. We want to hold the oyster firmly with a hand towel curved side down. This rounded shell will act as a sort of bowl to keep the flavourful brine called the liquor in place. Looking at the hunk of shale take note that there is a sort of hinge where the oyster uses a muscle to hold the two halves of shell together. This is our attack point. Place the point of your oyster knife astride this hinge and wedge it between the two halves. This part takes some practice and requires a bit of force. You won’t be as proficient as the high schooler shucking oysters in the beachside restaurant, but he’s shucked 10,000 of them and is, quite literally, a professional. Once you’ve forced your knife deep enough between the two halves, give it a twist and pop the shell apart. Now you should be able to push the knife all the way through the shell with ease. Run the knife across the top half to remove the meat from the shell and discard the cap. Take your knife and run it under the oyster to detach it from the bottom half being careful to keep as much of the juice inside the shell as possible. This liquid is called “oyster liquor” and provides an incredibly oceanic flavor to the oyster.
Place your shucked oyster on the bed of ice and take a moment to relax. Four sentences written on shucking an oyster really does not do it justice. It takes effort; splitting just one oyster is a production and is something to feel accomplished over. But you did it. Shucked an oyster in your own home, and now you get to do it again. And again. Plan on having at least three oysters per person but it’s not difficult to eat twelve or more in one sitting.
With your oysters shucked and plated on their bed of crushed ice place a dish of cocktail sauce in their midst and squeeze a wedge of lemon over them. Dollop each oyster with the cocktail sauce, add a dash of your favorite hot sauce and serve. If shucked properly the meat should already be loose from the bottom shell, tilt back your head and let the oyster slide into your mouth. Don’t just gulp the oyster down though. Give it a few chews, this isn’t a shooter, savor each bite. Let the oyster coat your mouth with its velveteen texture. Allow the heat of the horseradish and hot sauce to combine with the oysters brackish flavour. It takes work to open every husk, so cherish each bite.
Let us discuss drink pairings that go well with oysters because at this point, after shucking those oysters, you deserve a drink. The traditional beer pairing with an oyster is a stout. The dark maltiness holds up well against the salty flavors of the oyster. But the best pairing I have found is a very hoppy IPA. Citrus notes complement the oysters and the crisp flavour washes down the brininess to prepare the mouth for another. Wine also goes well with oysters; any crisp white will do, so pick one you enjoy and go with it. Pinot grigio is my preference. Champagne also gets a nod from pairing experts, the dry finish and tiny bubbles build upon the smooth texture of the oyster. Any of the above will do.
An ice cold vodka, sipped from a shot glass. Vodka and oysters were made for each other. The astringent bite of the vodka combined with the velvet mouth feel produced by the oyster is a combination that borders perfection. Sip vodka. Dump oyster. Repeat. Each bite and nip and taste and swallow building upon one another until you’re left in a salty daze and the sun has moved across the afternoon sky without your knowledge or consent. Shucking becomes easier, from practice or an inebriated disregard for one’s safety, it doesn’t matter.
Speakers resonating with your favorite summertime tunes, friends and family gathered around an ice bucket filled with a swiftly dwindling amount of protected oysters, a bottle of vodka diminishing just as quickly. The mound of oyster shells grows larger with each passing song from the radio. There are few things as perfect as an afternoon spent with oysters.
24 oysters, shucked
1⁄4 cup of ketchup
1⁄4 cup of freshly grated horseradish
Arrange oysters on a tray filled with crushed ice. Combine ketchup and horseradish in a small dish and serve alongside oysters. Squeeze lemon over oysters and add hot sauce to taste. Serve chilled with beverage of choice.