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.
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.
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.
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.
Experience 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.”
Carefully 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.
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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