Short is the list of food and drink to have inspired the volume of impassioned outpourings of sentiment from epicureans back to the earliest of recorded histories as the simple bivalve mollusc known as the oyster. Poets and lovers have spewed forth streams of sensuous verse celebrating the aphrodisiac power of its raw flesh. Steinbeck penned a cautionary tale of a simple man’s fall from grace, inevitably brought on after wresting a huge pearl from the depths of the sea. When the dictator Sulla, after saving Rome, turned his back on all the power and wealth of the Republic and left public life, he was doing something that few leaders through history have done, voluntarily ceding absolute power but as Plutarch noted, he then turned to a calling where one might find the intersection of heaven and earth. Where did he find this holy of holies? Why in his oyster ponds of course. The oyster feeds by filtration and in doing so builds a hard shell, comprised mainly of calcium carbonate, to protect the soft flesh within from the depravity and greed of the world outside, where all seem to seek its end for their own sweet succor, erotic sustenance and conspicuous adornment.
The oyster is a perfect food but not a homogeneous one by any measure. As with the grapes that give wine, the terroir, where they grow, matters; the salinity and temperature of the water, and the condition of the beds, all contributing to the taste of the fish. Again similar to wine, it is of great importance who does the growing. Farming a great oyster is hard work and just being in the right place with the right conditions does not guarantee a sublime result. They must be worked; tumbled, separated and sorted, constantly checked for parasites and pests, protected from choking by silts and algae; harvested, transported and stored at safe temperatures with proper documentation. The story of the commercialization of the oyster, of its cultivation and those who work to produce it is a long and fascinating one. It is also one which has been well-documented in books and essays composed by literary masters. So why go down that road at all?
I used to own an O’Day 19 sailboat which I kept in a small inlet of Nantucket bay called Polpis harbor. Back then I was invariably surrounded by small children and the boat was perfect for a day long adventure with a gang of tykes in tow. The O’Day 19 could never be mistaken for a racing boat, it is neither sleek nor streamlined but it is simple to rig and more importantly it is easy to fix when something breaks while out on the water. It has a large cabin equally good for loading up with supplies or providing a shady, cushioned space for any sun-stroked, seasick or weather beaten passenger or crew. We investigated every corner of the bay on that boat. With nets and bare hands we collected all of the sea creatures available in the bay, holding them for further study in buckets or hastily constructed ponds. We played in the sand of each shore. We’d dive off the boat to swim or be towed regardless of high boat traffic or heavy concentrations of jelly-fish. It was cheap fun of the best kind, a cooler with food and drinks, some stryo-foam floaty toys; shovels and rakes for the beaches we’d anchor near. Many fun and memorable days were thus spent, breezy or calm, plying the achingly beautiful waters of the bay.
The passage in and out of Polpis is a sailing challenge, a winding channel with swift tidal currents and constantly shifting sandbars, the passage through almost always creating a little excitement at the beginning and/or end of a sail. The narrowest part, called the cut, is known as Quaise and in the shallows on the western, bay side of this finger of sand there used to be an oyster farm. It wasn’t very large or well tended and seemed to consist mainly of one raggedy-ass float dock. From what I had gathered the guy who ran it did so primarily as a hobby, which seemed to be confirmed by the complete lack of activity I’d seen in the area. If later, this paragraph seems to the reader to serve no other purpose than to rationalize certain actions, I would certainly not find fault with the one drawing such conclusions but would; however, note that it does aid in the establishment of certain important geographic points of reference; orienting the reader in the area discussed in this narrative segment.
One fairly calm day while returning to Polpis after some sailing adventures, the tide on the low side but rising, I decided to anchor at Quaise and see if there were any steamer clams to be had in the still exposed flats. This is a fairly easy thing to do because at the western tip of the cut where the current runs its fastest, the shore drops away sharply into deep water, allowing a sailboat, centerboard still down, to run right up on to the dry land and set anchor. Shortly after doing this very thing, the kids and I got busy digging holes with our hands seeking out the tasty, but out of season, bivalves. Finding little at the bottom of our holes, other than worms, I thought that maybe I’d have a look at the surrounding area.
The point at Quaise is an entirely nondescript mound of sand, small round stones, bird shit and shells, a hangout for seabirds including gulls, egrets and oyster catchers. There were though some unnatural objects on the beach and in the shallows of the bay side which caught and held my attention. Partially exposed in the sandy shallows were a number black plastic mesh bags. Approaching and looking more closely at a completely stranded bag, I saw that it was full of shells. Oyster shells. Upon examining a semi-submerged bag I discovered that buried under a midden pile of their expired brethren there were some still living oysters within, clinging to life in the inter-tidal zone . Quick as I could, I retrieved a plastic bucket we had intended to fill with out-of- season steamers and began instead piling in an illict bivalve of another kind. I felt the thrilling fear of being caught poaching, as if I were hunting deer in the King’s Wood, for although the oysters were on the beach and seemingly left to die without apparent concern, I knew full well that others, with similar notions, had in the past been given cause to reflect sourly, later, on such foolhardy assumptions while being stitched up in the ER. Nothing even remotely dramatic ensued on the short sail back to the mooring and soon I found myself back home with a few dozen shellfish which I didn’t know how to open.
There’s more than one way to skin a cat, or so begins the analogy of some very twisted fuck. The oyster’s shell, to make use of my own depraved analogy, may be penetrated in as many ways as a porn star. Finding my wife’s shelf of cookbooks conspicuously lacking in any adult titles I instead turned to my old friend Jacque Pepin for a tutorial in the mysterious art of liberating the succulent fleshy interior from its prison of shell. Pepin favors the method which I still use to this day, namely the rear entry.
People often ask, while I’m shucking, if I cut myself a lot or like to tell me how scary what I’m doing looks, that I must be nuts for not wearing a glove (I do put duct tape on my left thumb) and I then generally answer with one of several dry, sardonic (can you believe it?) stock responses I’ve come up with over the years. The gist of it is that if one were in constant danger of severe laceration then it is unlikely that anyone, even one so clearly mentally challenged as myself, would open oysters. So I’ll tell you how I do it with the one caveat that any wounds the reader may incur are not the responsibility of the author. If you are new to this wear gloves for safety’s sake!
Knife in one hand, oyster in the other. Hold the knife by the blade exposing only the last inch from under your thumb if you hold it further back you are merely creating a longer self-stabbing tool. Finding the hinge of the oyster, (it’s the little black nubbin on the pointed end of the shell) work the tip of the blade in by rocking the oyster onto the knife. WAIT! STOP! DON’T MOVE THE KNIFE! Goddammit, listen to me! I SEE WHAT YOU’RE DOING! Ok, ready to listen? Maybe you should just watch an instructional video, wrap everything in towels and light a candle to St Jude instead.
So once you’ve gotten the tip into the hinge in the manner described above, lever the blade up while twisting it slightly toward yourself. At this point the oyster should pop. Victory, although assured, could be pyrrhic if you fuck up the next part. Have you ever ordered a plate of oysters and been served something that looked like it was dried, stuck in a blender and chopped to bits before being put back in its shell and served to you? I have, many times, and seeing oysters treated in such a way always makes my blood boil. Silently I repeat the occult and ancient shucker’s litany to calm myself so that I don’t rush the perpetrator upbraiding him for his philistine butchery. Instead I just send it back and say something very diplomatic like, “you’re charging me $36 for that, asshole?” .
Where was I?
Oh yes, the oyster is popped. Now, carefully hugging the top of the shell with the blade, find and sever the muscle on the front right side. Can’t miss it. It’s the only muscle attached to the top shell. The shell is now loose for removal. Remove it. Turn the oyster so the hinge is facing away from you and in one scooping motion, cut the bottom of the muscle away from the shell and flip the whole of the meat over. You should be left with a clean, attractive view of the plump belly floating in its own briny juice. Serve it to someone else or just slurp it down yourself, because for being the type of person that would get a bunch of oysters to open for your friends and family you deserve that first one.
I mentioned before that there are other ways to shuck an oyster beside the rear hinge method. In a pinch an experienced hand can use an amazing array of objects to pry open shellfish, pocket knives, steak knives, bottle openers, teeth, other shells, you name it, the list is limited only by your ingenuity and desperation. No matter what that voice you hear after drinking 10 Bud Lights and 5 shots of Jagermeister is telling you, do not try to replicate such feats! What’s your hurry? Is there a hot nurse on duty at the Cottage Hospital who you can’t get a date with but you’re sure that if you just had a little alone time, maybe in an examination room, she’d come around? Not gonna happen! Certainly not if you stumble in, drunk, sandy and bleeding, with a not as endearing as you think it sounds story about how you impaled your hand on a gaff hook. Get in line behind the guy who fell off the moped dummy and pray that you won’t be leaving the island on a helicopter.
The fastest shuckers in the world come in through the side of the oyster. Tenacious D fans everywhere refer to this as “the side hatch” technique. Using a short, flat, pointy knife, sometimes called a French knife, you hold the oyster with the hinge facing your body. 2/3 of the way up on the left side is a spot where you can slide the knife straight in, gaining direct access to the muscle, which once severed allows for an abbreviated shuck. Because this is an excellent way to stab yourself, don’t try it until you’ve got some knife skills and, Chrissakes Cap, be sure when you do that the oyster is very cold. The last way, which you are much more likely to see in the south, where the oysters much larger and not nearly as good to eat raw, is to go through the front of the oyster. A totally different, long, skinny knife is used in this method. Turn the hinge 90 degrees away from your body and worry the tip of the knife under the lip of the oyster until you find and sever the muscle, once you have done this proceed as before to the part where you eat the still living fish.
About that juice.
There is a reason that a good shucker serves you an oyster still floating in its own juice. The reason is that the juice is incredibly flavorful. We don’t just preserve it in the cup as a neat trick to show you how skilled we are. I have many times watched as someone walks up to the raw bar, picks up an oyster, places a finger (or if more civilized a fork) over the meat and dumps that precious liquor out. Now if this happens at a big event or fancy party I almost always resist the urge to speak up, after all someone is paying me good money to shuck these things and not to be all holier-than-thou about it but if I’m out at the beer garden or the attendee at the event seems like a reasonable type I’ll tell that person to try the next one with the liquor. I’ll sing the praises of the briney liquid, explaining that this is where the most subtle aspect of an oyster’s flavor lives, that you must taste the sea to taste the fish, I’ll quote the Joseph Mitchell’s essays on the subject but if I were to see you dumping cocktail sauce on it I’ll shut up about the liquor and try instead to save you from an even graver wrong.
Back to the free oysters.
On the sailing trips that followed if I was returning on a low-ish tide I began to make a habit of stopping at Quaise on the way back in to Polpis and checking around for any other bags that may have washed into the shallows or the tidal estuary near-by. Finding bag after bag was the reward for these efforts and sometimes when I found myself questioning the ethics of gathering up these shellfish, I’d tell myself that they had been abandoned and left to die there in the mud and silt of the shallows, which had the ring of truth, I just never bothered to confirm whether or not the proprietor of the oyster farm saw truth the same way.
Eventually I got all the bags that had washed in from the farm. It was disappointing but I wasn’t about to complain, it had been quite a run of freebies and the feeling of having been a bit of pirate was exhilarating. The next spring; however, when the O’Day was back on the mooring and we were again sailing through the cut; there, washed up on the beach, I found the same miraculous bounty. The storms of the previous winter had restocked the larder. And so it went for the next few years until the farmer gave up entirely and the treasure trove that had washed in year after year was finally exhausted. During this period my kids developed quite a taste for oysters and had somehow got the notion that they were a free and abundant resource.
Luckily my pal and sometime co-shucker Jonny Hoota hails from Provincetown, has worked with, and is connected to some very talented Wellfleetian oystermen. He supplies them to select Boston restaurants and sometimes he will have some left that his clients didn’t need. When he has these extra oysters he always calls around to friends, such as myself, to see if we want to take them off his hands. Which was how it came to pass that on my daughter’s 13th birthday I was standing by our kitchen sink with a bag of Wellfleets (meaning 100), some lemons and a knife. I started shucking and she began knocking them back and as she did I saw a strange glint in her eye. It was vanishingly brief and yet in that moment it was as if a window had opened through which I could see all the way back to those sailing summers, and there, like Proust and with his madelines, that sense memory unlocked a place in her soul where the entirety of those days on the bay had been condensed and placed in a shell. I said nothing and just shucked away, my wife ate a few and I noted them, I had a few also which I counted but she just kept slurping them down, dozen after dozen. Finally she was done, her appetite ruined for the amazing meal that my wife had prepared, in total she had devoured 54 oysters by my count. I have worked many events, many days in the beer garden, thrown a lot of clambakes for my friends and I’ve seen some people crush a lot of oysters and I’ve heard people speak of more amazing feats of oyster consumption, there’s even this one guy we call El Doubley, for his technique of dumping one oyster into the next and slurping down both at once, who may have surpassed 54 in the course of an evening but I have never seen anyone, any size or age, eat more oysters continuously and without a pause.
People always say to me, oh you must be so sick of oysters. Truth be told, no. After the spring weddings, the beer garden days and Summer evening events, the shoulder season that now seems to flow unbroken to Christmas Stroll, you would have every reason to believe that this is true; but if I have a bag of plump Nantucket Blondes, burly Wallace Bays or sweet, subtle Pemaquids , you better believe I’m eating them all.
And I eat them with gusto god dammit!
So from the damp cold of Spring until the clear cool of Autumn I stand, my hand holding with well-practiced pressure the sharp shell, and I repeat the motions, robotic, which inevitably will overpower the small creature in my grasp, my pursuit of excellence in presentation a clumsy attempt to honor its sensual perfection. An oyster which has been made (yes made) with care and expertise stands out as obviously as a home built by a master carpenter. The regularity of shape, strength of shell and depth of the cup as much a result of the farmer’s expertise as perfect mitres and tight joinery are the mark of a fine woodworker’s craft. I know what to look for in an oyster and I seek it out relentlessly, because it doesn’t matter whether I am serving the most worldly of gourmands or someone from the inland, who has just washed ashore for the first time, I want them to eat that first oyster I shuck for them and then I want them to get the same gleam in their eye that my daughter had on her 13th birthday.