Rules for Eating Oysters; A Parable About My Favorite Food

"Don't chew too much," my friends had warned, and I took their advice over-literally and did not chew at all.
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Lesley Kinzel
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"Don't chew too much," my friends had warned, and I took their advice over-literally and did not chew at all.
With some Kumamoto friends.

With some Kumamoto friends.

I came to oysters later in my life.

I arrived at them the way others might arrive at religion, or sobriety. Despite growing up in South Florida, a place chockablock with raw bars even before such things were hip and were primarily frequented by leather-skinned old dudes who presumably had seen so much adventure in life that the only thing left for them was raw shellfish, I never partook myself until I was in my 30s and far away from my childhood home. Until then, I found oysters about as appetizing as a fingerbowl of mucus. They seemed so inappropriate, so unfinished, so incomplete, so raw.

It was at a dinner with friends that this changed. The friends were those particular friends, the old friends you don't see very often, but whom you have known so long you cannot help but adore every infrequent moment spent together, while also sort of wanting to impress them. The fancy restaurant was situated in an historic former bank building in Boston with cavernous high ceilings and bar shelves that glowed blue. My friends said, "Let's get oysters," and I said, "I'm not a big fan of oysters.... I mean I haven't had them very often," and my friends said, "Oh, let's," and we did.

I took in my hand a shell that felt both fragile and rugged at the same time, squeezed my eyes shut, and vacuumed a living oyster directly into my esophagus, making no stop on my tongue to taste it or feel its texture. "Don't chew too much," my friends had warned, and I took their advice over-literally and did not chew at all.

It was simpler than I thought it would be. It seemed so willing to slide down my throat with no resistance. I did it again and again and probably again, slower each time. The fleeting instant of taste I allowed myself by the end was not unpleasant, if I did not think about what exactly I was eating.

While raw things were commonly consumed where I grew up, the cold waters of New England — where I live now — are excellent oyster territory. I hesitate to apply superlatives, although I do think our oysters are the best, but the thing about oysters is that for every type and locale you will find individuals who firmly believe that their oysters are the best, be they from the warm waters of the Gulf Coast, or from the Pacific Northwest. And I don’t want to fight about it, because oysters are about love.

I started seeing oysters everywhere after that — I noticed them on menus where I hadn’t before. Not even realizing the role they played in it, I read Sarah Waters' novel, Tipping the Velvet, which is as effective a means of making a person want to eat oysters as any you’ll find.

There is a romance to oysters that far outpaces their reputation as an aphrodisiac, which is likely apocryphal and/or mainly owing to their apparent visual similarity to a vulva. Oysters have never made me think of sex, but rather of coarse, crude nature. They are irresistibly primal, having been consumed by humans for thousands of years.

They are alluring for the same reason that the sun-warmed tomatoes I eat standing in my garden having just pulled them from the vine taste better than they could in any other surroundings: They are simple, unspoiled, and the distance between where they were grown and my hands is a straight line, making no stops for additional processing or other interference. There is a particular mystique to these bivalves, to the idea that an oyster can be drawn from the sea, opened (with some effort), and consumed as is, still living. No, the shucking process does not necessarily kill the oyster, which must be as fresh as possible to avoid food-borne illness; one French “test” for oyster freshness holds that when squirted with lemon juice, an about-to-be-eaten oyster should perceptibly flinch.

You withdraw in horror. I know. I used to be like you. But oysters are not animals like any other — to the extent that there is a healthy debate over whether they are acceptable for vegans to eat. Unlike nearly all other forms of meat production, oyster farms are actually good for the environment, and the most common means of harvesting them are not destructive to the sea floor. They improve water quality wherever they live, and they don’t require chemicals or hormones or fertilizer to grow. They cannot move on their own (save for opening and closing their shells), and they have no nervous system so ostensibly they have no feelings.

You may accept all of this on an intellectual basis, and yet when faced with a freshly shucked oyster glassily peering up at you from a plate and all but daring you to eat it, it might not matter. If, however, you want to venture into the wonderful world of Ostreidae, these are my rules for eating oysters:

Don't look at them for too long.

The biggest rookie mistake is overthinking it. If you gape at a naked oyster for more than a minute or two, you probably aren’t going to be able to eat the thing. They’re not gorgeous creatures, being a sort of grayish/beigish color, shimmering with a slimy sheen, and lingering on the edge of oblivion, which is a difficult look even in the best of circumstances.

DON'T STARE.

DON'T STARE.

But as is true of so much in life, what becomes ugly on closer inspection may be beautiful in a passing glance. Don’t stare so much, at the world or at oysters. Trust that the beauty is there and that is what you’ll see.

Don't think about the biology.

Oysters are, literally, filled with mucus, but don’t think about that. It’s the ocean’s mucus, and as such is fresh and delicious in its own strange way. Oysters have a tiny heart that pumps colorless blood, and they eat and breathe and sleep seawater, filtering through the food chain’s tiniest representatives and neatly ejecting any detritus that interferes.

Yes, there is a very slim risk of bacterial infection, particularly when consuming oysters grown in warmer waters, or during the summer months. It is a risk, like the risk you take when you get in a car, or board a plane, or ask for a raise, or tell someone how you really feel about them, with all of your defenses down. There is no joy in life without risk — there is no triumph, no achievement, no electric thrill of knowing you are alive without risk. Oyster consumption may not be a particular risk you are comfortable taking, but be sure you are taking a risk somewhere.

Manage your expectations.

The most common description of oysters is that they “taste like the sea,” which is true, if a little misleading, as some taste like a gentle ocean breeze wafting tropical perfumes at you, and some have a flavor closer to the Gorton Fisherman’s sea-soaked socks.

You may be surprised by which you prefer. I started on big briny New England oysters that basically punch you in the face with the flavor of an animal that tastes like it spent its life scrubbing tiny garbage particles out of the ocean, which is, to be fair, what it did. Once I’d acquired a taste for Eastern oysters, the softer, more delicate and therefore less challenging Pacific oysters were a total letdown — even everyone’s favorite beginner oyster, the Kumamoto, takes second place to New England’s brawny brinies in my reckoning. If you start your mountain-climbing career by scaling Everest, everything after that is going to be a cakewalk.

Don’t assume anything about an oyster. Make your observations and draw your own conclusions. Be open to possibilities, rather than fearful of what is unknown. And always be willing to surprise yourself.

Don't chew too much.

But do chew a little.

This is the most difficult advice to follow. Although it goes against every instinct, you want to hold an oyster in your mouth like you would hold a fragile object in your hand — securely enough to not miss a single aspect, but grip it too tightly and you will destroy the thing you were trying to protect. Taste an oyster, press it between your teeth to test its texture, the sense of what it is, but don’t pulverize it, as paradoxically the more you chew, the harder it will be to finally swallow.

You don’t need to work at it so hard; you don’t need to be afraid of what will happen if you pause and let yourself be fully mindful of this one moment, right now, with an oyster in your mouth or not. You don’t always need to be looking ahead to the next step, to the chewing, to the chewing being over, to the swallowing, to the next oyster, to the next thing, you can just be here, feeling it, in this instant, the only thing that exists with a decided certainty.

So take a minute to chew a little — don’t hurry — and explore where you are right now. And then keep going. You are a courageous machine. You are growing. You might even try oysters someday.

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For more oyster facts, I strongly recommend Rowan Jacobsen's book A Geography of Oysters, which helped inform parts of this essay.