Falling in love with oysters

The allure of the oyster always mystified me. For years, I’d wrinkle my nose when my tablemates would order the slippery creatures, put off by the texture of the little puddles of flesh. Don’t get me wrong: I like seafood. I grew up near the water, and I’ve scarfed down everything pulled from the sea ever since I could chew. And that’s not just fish–crustaceans are more than fair game, and I clamor to pry clams and mussels from their shells. But oysters always made me uncomfortable. It was something about their slimy, briny consistency–it seemed akin to willingly slurping down a slug.

So for a while I feigned interest. In New Orleans, I passed over the famous Oysters Rockfeller at Antoine’s, opting instead for a taste of something I thought would provide a perfect out: The Po’boy. A heaping portion of anything fried and served in a bun typically falls within my culinary wheelhouse, and the Parkway Bakery’s po’boy is considered to be one of the best in the city. The rubbery consistency of fried oysters was close enough to the clam rolls of my youth that I bit in without second thought. And to be honest, even mid-meal, no real difference between the two really registered in my mind; if anything there was a slightly creamier texture beneath the crispy oyster’s crust. I convinced myself that I’d overcome my aversion, but inside I knew the truth. I was still an oyster virgin. And for a while, I was okay with that.Then, earlier this year, I was offered an important opportunity that hinged largely upon my knowledge of oysters (or at least an appreciation for the creatures). So I did what most journalists do when encountered with an unfamiliar subject, and I dug deep, researching a foodstuff that I’d never really tried. I read that the Greeks worshiped the oyster and believed that Aphrodite, goddess of love, emerged the ocean in an oyster shell (which is the root of why they’re now considered aphrodisiacs). I found out that when the first colonial settlers arrived in the Chesapeake Bay, oyster reefs were so plentiful that they were considered navigational hazards (back then, they reportedly found oysters that were 13 inches long). Oysters, I learned, are an important part of the watery ecosystem, flushing out algae and pollutants from the water and creating reefs that help support other sea life. Groups like the Nature Conservancy and the Oyster Recovery Partnership have been working to repopulate oyster beds in areas around the country, as the conservancy estimates that in places like the Chesapeake, the oyster population is only one percent of what it once was. After giving myself a tutorial in all things oyster, my assignment thankfully worked out, and I was left feeling extremely beholden to the little bivalves. So I set out to get to know them better this summer.

In New England, where I live, oyster-selling establishments have history: The Union Oyster House is Boston‘s–and the country’s–oldest restaurant. It opened in 1826 and has been continuously operating ever since (J.F.K. apparently used to patronize a booth upstairs). It’s also a pretty crowded tourist attraction, but thankfully, one of Boston’s greatest oyster galleries is just a few blocks away, and it’s there that I had my official introduction.

Neptune Oyster bar is tiny and covered in white subway tiles that make you feel a bit like you’re dining in a fish market. Which in essence, you are. Their rotating menu of oysters are brought in daily from both coasts, and are served fanned out in circles and placed on a pile of shaved ice and rock salt. They’re elevated on the table on a little stand, not unlike the way pizza is served in certain restaurants, which allows you to get a closer glimpse of each variation. That was how I realized that I’d never really looked at an oyster up close: The ripples in the shells, the pearly white insides, the little pools of meat that admittedly still kind of creeped me out.

But I was there for the experience, and so experience I did. Aligning my mouth on the edge of the shell, I made my first fateful slurp. Salty and fresh, it tasted like the ocean. For the next half hour, as we worked our way through the plate, my friends and I explored the flavors as we would with wine. Earthy, mossy, bright, and fruity; who knew oysters varied so greatly? I spent the next few weeks ordering oysters on every menu I encountered, hoping to expand my palate. By summer’s end, I had not only gotten over my squeamishness, but landed on a favorite, the creamy, buttery Island Creeks, which are sustainably harvested in nearby Duxbury, Massachusetts.

I quickly learned that Island Creeks are a big deal in the Bay State; they have a new restaurant that opened in Boston this year, and are also the subject of a the book Shucked, out this month, about author Erin Byers Murray’s year spent working at the oyster farm. So I decided to complete my oyster appreciation tour with a pilgrimage of sorts.

Island Creek hosts an annual festival to raise funds for their charity, the Island Creek Oyster Foundation, which is working to build sustainably-grown oyster beds in Zanzibar and Haiti. So on a gorgeous afternoon earlier last month, I entered the huge tent that they’d set up on the beach in Duxbury, which was filled with outstanding chefs preparing oyster BLTs, grilled oysters, and hundreds and hundreds of raw oysters, shucked and served just out of the sea. “Look this one, it’s a porn star,” one shucker said as he handed an extremely large selection (apparently both oysters and porn stars are judged on the size of their cups). I eyed it greedily, and realized that when I comes to oysters, I’d finally come out of my shell.