No one has moderate feelings toward the raw oyster (except perhaps for the terminally indifferent, may they ride the Meh Bus straight to hell): Either you ohmigod love love loooooove them, or you think they are gross little brine-loogies and have bad taste in things.
Which, hey. Yes. Raw oysters—grayish and wet and cold and somewhat jellylike, briny-tasting and raw to a flagrant degree that even sashimi cannot match—are not exactly the most user-friendly of the foodstuffs. The very suggestion of consuming a raw oyster on purpose must seem, to the sorts of depressingly numerous weenies who must pinch their noses and chew at light speed just to choke down a Brussels sprout without dry-heaving, patently ludicrous, not unlike how you might feel if a significant other proposed taking a road trip to 1934. What? No. Get outta here with that crazy shit. Fuck's wrong with you?
So, yes, the initial unattractiveness of a raw oyster, both superficially and as a filter-feeding, dirty-shell-encased, amorphous blob of a concept, is a hurdle to get over. OK. But, dammit, what kind of an asshole runs away from hurdles?
Here's the thing. Raw, fresh oysters are amazing. An oyster, in its fresh and raw form, reflects with gem-grade clarity the place where it grew, some far-flung place that—because the oyster was just harvested and just now cranked open, with water from that place still in its shell and body—you are able to experience more or less exactly as it is right now, even though you are very far away from it. The difference between a Maine oyster, intense and face-crumplingly briny, and the gentle, sweet oysters from off British Columbia, is not a difference of culinary technique, or style, or fanciness of equipment, or accompanying flavors, or the friggin' gluten content of its breading, or any of the other embellishments we heap onto most basic foodstuffs as we prepare them for eating. It's precisely the difference between the Atlantic Ocean off the coast of Maine, and the Pacific Ocean off the coast of British Columbia, and nothing else.
This is a pleasingly simple and elegant notion that would mean nothing at all if not for the additional, and certainly more important, fact that fresh, raw oysters, from places where the water is cold and the conditions are favorable for oyster growth and feeding, taste goddamn wonderful and are a genuine gas to eat. This part, though, you will have to find out for yourself. This is a great time to do so, close to the peak of their seasonal excellence. Are you excited? A little bit afraid, but also excited? Yes? Let's do this!
The first thing to do, of course, is to select and acquire oysters. A half-dozen for each person who'll be slurpin' 'em down. (You may not eat that many—but you may very well mangle a few of them in the shucking.) Decide for yourself whether you prefer saltier or milder, larger or smaller, firmer or softer oysters, and inform your fishmonger-type person accordingly.
Generally speaking, Pacific Northwest oysters are sweeter and milder and less challenging than New England oysters. New Brunswick and Newfoundland produce mild oysters, too, but these will not rival Pacific oysters for sweetness. A mostly safe rule holds that cold-water oysters—think of the coasts of Canada, the Pacific Northwest, the various waters off northern Europe, Japan, New Zealand, and so on—are milder and sweeter (more beginner-friendly) than warm-water oysters, and Pacific oysters are milder and sweeter than Atlantic ones; accordingly, the mid-Atlantic is home to some very tasty oysters that will nonetheless turn your entire head inside-out, which is quite a thing to record on video.
(Also, some otherwise intelligent-seeming people insist that Apalachicola Bay, Fla., produces the best oysters to be found anywhere on Earth. Maybe they're right; maybe they're wrong; maybe they're Disney-engineered cyborgs planted to spread pro-Florida propaganda. In any case, if you should happen to have access to fresh Apalachicola Bay oysters, bully for you. Otherwise, err toward cold water if you're unsure of your tolerance for briny intensity, OK?)
(Also also, an important thing to know is that you're not necessarily limited to what you can find in whatever local place happens to sell some seafood. Nowadays, you can order oysters from all over the globe online or by phone and have them shipped to you with a reasonably high degree of confidence that they'll arrive fresh. Give it a shot.)
As with other bivalves, these must be alive at the time of purchase, and they must remain alive until you are ready to shuck and eat them, and that's easy enough to verify: If their shells are firmly closed—or, if they close themselves promptly when you squeeze them or tap on them, and especially if they tell you to stay out of my room, dad, gosh, as they do—then they are alive. Otherwise, chuck 'em.
They should also be fresh, which is not as big a pain in the ass as you might think. Oysters are much, much hardier than other live bivalves, and so the window of time they can spend out of the ocean and still be considered fresh is much, much wider than for clams and mussels. But, still: The more recently they were harvested, the better they'll taste. It's perfectly OK to ask your fishmonger or wiry peg-legged wharf-dude or the clerk at the seafood counter or the online broker or whomever how recently his oysters were yanked out of the water, and, if he claims not to know, it's also perfectly OK to give him a modest quantity of stink-eye on your way to find someone else to buy oysters from. Ideally your oysters will not have spent more than a few days out of the ocean by the time you eat them. Unless they've been mistreated, they'll be tasty longer than that (and, contrary to popular folklore, will almost certainly not turn your lower gastrointestinal tract into a firehose)—just not as tasty as they were a few days ago.
So you've got your oysters. Excellent. The next thing to do is keep them alive until you're ready to eat them. This is pretty straightforward, because, again, they're pretty hardy little bastards, as mucous-stuffed rocks go: Keep them cold, keep them damp, and give them access to air. A common mistake is to pack the oysters in a bunch of crushed ice in a bag. The problem here is that the ice melts, and then these marine creatures are swimming in freshwater, which is toxic to them, and then they die, and then you might just as well have wadded up some of your money and pitched it into a volcano, which would be a much cooler way to waste it. Don't do that. Cover them with damp paper towels in the refrigerator; they'll keep for a while (seriously, these fuckers used to be shipped by railroad to the friggin' Rocky Fucking Mountains back in Ye Olden Thymes), but anyway you're going to eat them within the next 36 hours, because that is what an internet person is telling you to do.
Some time has passed, and your oysters are still alive because you stored them smartly, and now you are ready to eat them. Clean your oysters. Their shells are covered with sand, and likely some not inconsiderable quantity of seaweed or friggin' kelp spores or viscous sea-mud or some shit—the point is, that shit has to come off, or it will find a way to go in, into your person, where it will make you feel bad about things, like for example your stomach, which will transmogrify into an entire wolverine and also feel bad about things, notably about you, and about remaining inside of you. Stick 'em in a colander and shake 'em around under a cold running faucet, maybe with a few ice cubes stuck in there to keep them as cold as possible. Break out the scrub brush or steel wool for any particularly steadfast schmutz.
And now, the awful part. Shuck your goddamn oysters. Now, look. You read about this shit in a cookbook, or you watch some oyster-shucking professional do it at an oyster bar, and it seems so simple: You grip the oyster in a sturdy hand-towel with the hinge sticking out; you work the tip of an oyster knife into the hinge, push down, and rotate the blade slightly until you feel a small pop at the separation of the top shell from the bottom; then you slip the knife deep into the opening, press it against the top, and slide it the length of the oyster shell to separate the oyster itself from the top shell; and then, finally, you slide the knife under the exposed oyster to separate it from the bottom shell so that it can be eaten, and voila! The whole thing takes maybe three, four seconds! says the book or video or oyster-shucking dude at the wharf.
And that is just a buncha bullshit right there. Or, anyway, yes, that is the basic procedure for oyster-shucking, and it is quite simple and quick—for people who have done it ten trillion times and have thus developed forearms the size of large dogs. For the rest of us, I am very sorry to say, this is a miserable, fumbling, cursing, desperate, vain-seeming chore—at least the first time—in the commission of which you will expend literally all the metabolic energy you will ever have, and during which you will come to suspect, and then believe, and then goddamn know that this is not an actual oyster at all, this is a fucking stone, this is just a goddamn hunk of fucking shale and I am attempting to shuck a hunk of shale when instead I should be taking it back to the fish market and bludgeoning the prankster fishfuck to death with it.
Yes. This. The purifying furnace of your own all-consuming hate. This is precisely what will enable you to crack open that first stupid snot-rock, this and your solemn determination that, goddammit, something is getting split open at the end of all this toil and misery and failure, be it an oyster or a stone or a seafood clerk's cranium or the next uranium atom that gives you any shit. You can—you will—open that first oyster, and then many of its brethren, until all bivalves spread the legend of your cruelty in hushed tones and fling themselves wide open at the first whisper of your approach. A goddamn starfish can open an oyster, and you're a hell of a lot more capable than a goddamn starfish. Hell, you passed anger management class four times.
(A note, here. ["Christ, more?" you say. Shut up.] Never use a steak knife or a pocket knife or a butter knife or a chainsaw to attempt to open an oyster. Never use anything but an oyster knife. Not only can other varieties of blade give you grisly wounds when they slip out of the oyster shell while you are applying many hundreds of pounds of pressure to them, but, also, they can just friggin' break, because they are not made for oyster shucking. This breaking can also cause grisly wounds—more importantly, though, that's just a waste of a knife. Get an oyster knife. Shouldn't cost you more than nine bucks.)
So it is now 2071 and your oysters have all succumbed, whether from the gradual improvement of your shucking technique or, more likely, pity. In any event, plate them, finally. On a bed of crushed ice, to keep them cold to the very end.
And now, by God, eat them.
Your raw oysters require nothing in order to be a perfect foodstuff. Nothing. However, if you'd like to dress them up with a squeeze of fresh lemon, or a modest dab of cocktail sauce, or some straight horseradish, or a few drops of hot sauce, that's OK. Pairing them with booze is fun. Cold beer or Champagne is nice—so is straight, very cold vodka as a palate cleanser between oysters.
The important thing here is not to extract the oyster daintily from its shell with a little shrimp fork like a goddamn fraidycat. Lift an oyster shell directly to your face, take a deep whiff of it, and then slurp that goddamn prehistoric life-wad into your mouth like a fucking walrus. Don't swallow it down in one go, like a little kid choking down the last bite of dinner so he can have dessert; give it a couple of committed, unhurried chews, and pay attention to the flavor. Briny and sweet and ineffably oystery; it tastes like the precise place of its origin, and urgently fresh and exciting and utterly distinct. It is the raw stuff of joy, an unembellished and unmodified Thing That Is Good, and here you are liking things that are good, and that is good, and you are good, and having somebody else do the shucking next time will be good, too.
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Albert Burneko is an eating enthusiast and father of two. His work can be found destroying everything of value in his crumbling home. Peevishly correct his foolishness at firstname.lastname@example.org, or publicly and succinctly on Twitter @albertburneko. You can find lots more Foodspin at foodspin.deadspin.com.
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