The Art of Eating an Oyster

The holiday season is a good time to consider the Oyster. Here follows my opinionated viewpoint on how best to enjoy them. I have entitled it The Art of Eating an Oyster. I wrote the first version 25 years ago. It has served me well. Those who have influenced and/or participated in my unabashed passion for the Oyster are recognized below.

Totten Inlet Virginica

The Art of Eating an Oyster

The Oyster, perhaps more than any other food, is a feast for the senses. First of all, a feast for the eyes. Served icy cold on a platter of shaved ice with the oysters glistening in their juices, they need no garnish to attract the eye or imagination.

Engage the oyster.

Forgo the fork. Engage the oyster. Your fingers have tastebuds. If you have been through many oyster seasons, your salivary glands perk up in anticipation when you pick up the cold, damp, wet, rough shell.  You can already taste the oyster.

Tia KeenanAs you lift the oyster to your mouth…

Tia Keenan…pause momentarily to breathe in the fresh clean smell of the sea.

Icy gust of wind off the bay.Tilt your head back, close your eyes, slurp in the oyster and its juices. If iced down before serving and is minutes or less off the shucking knife, the oyster is cold and vibrant as an icy gust of wind off the bay on a winter’s low tide.

Tia KeenanExperience the sensation that M.F.K. Fisher, the doyenne of oyster poets, referred to adoringly as the oyster’s “strange cold succulence” and what novelist Tom Robbins likens to “French-kissing a mermaid.”

Tia KeenanCarefully chewing the oyster, your palate is inundated with a variety of distinct tastes that come in succession. If the oyster is well-fed, plump, and firm, the first taste is sweetness from the glycogen, which the warmth of your mouth is already breaking down into component sugars. The sweet taste dissipates quickly, then depending on the  growing waters, comes a unique line up of flavors…a succession of brine, various mineral, algal and other mollusk flavors on the tip, sides and finally on the back of your tongue and the soft palate in the back of your mouth.

The most intriguing, the most difficult to describe and the most important taste when it comes to combining a wine or ale, is the aftertaste or finish—those flavors that linger after the oyster is chewed and  swallowed. The aftertaste of an oyster is part sensation—an enlivening of the tongue, cheeks and roof of the mouth. The truly great oyster is characterized by its distinctive aftertaste.

Wash down the oyster and invigorate the palate with a brisk, dry, clean-finishing white wine or a malty porter or stout. A bite of crusty light rye bread, like the French pain de seigle, to neutralize the taste-buds and then on to the next oyster. And the next. And the next. Raise an oyster to toast a great oyster moment.

Xavier Caille, ParisWhether eaten with a new friend, before a business venture, a romance, a meal, a marriage, a new year…think of oysters as a beginning, a prelude to a wonderful experience about to happen.

Hiristo Zisovski, Tia Keenan

###

I raise an oyster in gratitude to the following individuals and places for their influence on my relationship with the Oyster and my life: Paris, Earnest Hemingway, Lewis Carroll, M.F.K. Fisher, Eleanor Clark (The Oysters of Locmariaquer), Sandy Ingber (NY), Julia Child, Steve La Haie (Chicago), Sheila Lukins, William Rice (Chicago), Tom Meyer (Wash. DC), Bill Taylor (Taylor Shellfish Farms, Shelton, WA), Ruth Reichl (NY), R.W. (Johnny) and Betsey Apple, Narsai David (SF), Leslie Kelley (SEA), Betty Fussell (NY), Tom Sietsema (Wash DC) Rowan Jacobsen (Vermont) Nancy Leson (Sea), Rodney Clark (Toronto), Melina Hammer (Brooklyn), Jim Gossen (Houston), Jerry DiVecchio (SF), Xavier Caille (Paris), Robb Walsh (Houston), Beth Kraklauer (NY), Jonathon Gold (LA), Russ Parsons (LA), Zanne Stewart (NY), Jane Lear (NY). Poppy Tooker (New Orleans), Melanie Young (NY)

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10 Responses to The Art of Eating an Oyster

  1. I really enjoyed the entry Jon! Thanks for the heads up about it :) I’ve come to learn, and I know that you know, that the sexy oyster eating experience is slightly interrupted when you’re in the EU. Since they leave the bottom abductor muscle attached (theory: it’s stays fresher that way), a fork is needed to self-shuck the bottom. Occasionally I get a clean cut. Generally though, there’s a bit of stubborn muscle stuck to the shell, which I vigorously scrape off. Depending on the type of cocktail fork, this endeavor is straightforward or annoyingly tricky (assuming that you don’t want to look like a fool). I should have observed more Parisians while they’re eating oysters to see how they go about this. Did you happen to get a chance to?

  2. jonrowley says:

    Good comment! Yes most establishments in France leave the adductor muscle attached. I’ve heard different reasons. The most prevalent is that you can tell the oyster is fresh. But anyone who eats a lot of oysters can certainly tell a just-shucked oyster. One advantage to leaving the adductor attached is that the oyster continues to “make water”. It will also twitch to the touch. It certainly makes the job easier for the shucker or ecailleur. All good, but “the sexy oyster oyster experience”…engaging the oyster and the senses by picking it up and slurping down the meat and juices is an overriding consideration. I’ve been known to carry an oyster knife to finish the job of cutting the adductor clean when ordering oysters in France. You can also use a tableknife and even a fork to get the adductor cut (or scraped). You may need a little practice, but obviously the French have become proficient. Eating oysters is probably the second most popular pastime

  3. saltyseattle says:

    alright, so i’ve absorbed your oyster wisdom both in person and in print now, and i cannot get the damn elusive beauties out of my head. thank you for inspiring me to hatch a new plan. hope you won’t be mortified- i think you won’t mind after all, as it will be a tasteful way to blend my world with yours.

  4. Tags says:

    If there is another human being who has so ardently and assiduously considered the oyster as you have, I’d like to know who it is.

    If any food could so dumbfound as to make folks want to “slap their Mama,” then oysters would surely inspire them to send her flowers in gratitude for bringing them into the world.

  5. Gordon says:

    Name the 4 species @Walrus & Carpenter Picnic
    tia

  6. Pingback: Low Country Oyster Roast « the meaning of pie

  7. jonrowley says:

    The four species available for picking up right off the oyster beds at the Walrus & Carpenter Picnics are the Olympia (Ostrea lurida), Kumamoto (Crassostrea sikamea), Totten Inlet Pacific (Crassostrea gigas) and the Totten Inlet virginica (Crassostrea virginica).

  8. Ole M. Amundsen, Jr. says:

    We do love the oyster, my companion Carol does pastel paintings of their amazingly diverse shells, while I am so happy to clean, shuck and enjoy them in much the same manner as you. I do add one step: when shucking, I do a sniff test (my tutor on this was Arthur Merrill late shellfish authority). I repeat the sniff just before tilting the lovely creature into my mouth which adds a wondrous “sea air” to the initial taste….try it, you will like it!

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