by Cathy Erway
It was something I would have normally found awe-inspiring: a platter of freshly shucked oysters, placed ceremoniously on a chrome stand. The opened half shells dotted the perimeter of the dish, sunken into a bed of crushed ice. In the center lay lemon wedges and small cups of cocktail sauce, horseradish and vinaigrette, with spoons dug provocatively down in. In their pools of clear brine, the silver flesh of the oysters seemed to quiver gently even seconds after being set down, and their juices threatened to drip into the ice. These were served up at a well-heeled restaurant with much recent hype, no less, at a table that was the envy of every person waiting patiently outside. It was, by all standards, a real foodie’s dream. But it just wasn’t the same for me.
You see, the day before, I had foraged for oysters on a calm and sandy beach. I wasn’t expecting to find them, nor the quahogs, hermit crabs and miniature shellfish that lay half-hidden at my feet. But I recognized the teardrop shape and craggy surface of the first oyster from afar, and spent the next hour or so peeling the beach for more. Once home, I shucked them open one by one, to enjoy with friends. I’d collected ten oysters in total, and they ranged wildly in stature: the smallest being the size of a baby’s ear and the largest one, a round and deep-bowled object that held a mouthful-sized mollusk. Some had translucent green strands of seaweed clinging to its shells, which I could never get off. One had another oyster shell impossibly stuck against it like a Siamese twin. Slipped into the mouth, some oysters gave with a subtle crunch, like a softened piece of cartilage, while others went down as a smooth, cold lobe of blubber. All of them were very easy to shuck. Perhaps it was this particular species, but the way the tiny crevice between the pointed ends of both shells – the sweet spot – gave so easily with the shove of a shucker made it seem as if they had been waiting to be opened, too.
It just doesn’t get much better than the rare thrill of finding really good food from the wild.
MFK Fisher devoted an entire book to considering the oyster, filled with enchanting essays that cemented the bivalve’s reputation as a food of many mysteries, and hidden thrill. She dwells on everything from the reproductive process of the indecisively sexed species, and the aphrodisiac allure for the mollusk of the Romans, or her own male suitors. She touches on different types of oyster-eaters (some like them raw and untouched, while others, elaborately prepared) and what they represent. But nowhere does she make mention of finding and shucking an oyster from the shore herself. I hunger for how haunting her book may have been then.
Now, every time I’m served an oyster at restaurants, after slurping it down in good time, I flip the shell over to its pearlized side. Locate the little groove at its point, the hinge of the animal. Wonder who the lucky oyster shucker who found its weak spot was, and imagine the oyster alive, embedded in sand. They say anyone who eats meat should participate in a slaughter at least once, to acknowledge the suffering of these animals for your food. (It might just turn you away from the food.) I say if you eat oysters, try to shuck – and if you can, find – your own, just once. It might make you an even greater fan of eating the mollusk, in more ways than you even knew.