Oysters on the half shell with a nice glass of wine.By Clifford A. Wright
Oysters are terrific bivalves
They have young ones by the score
How they diddle is a riddle
They just keep on having more
Gourmets will wax poetic about great oysters, and why not? They are telling the truth. The most famous American oysters in the 19th century were the Saddle-Rocks taken from a rocky reef in the East River of New York where it meets the Long Island Sound around Little Neck Bay. They were huge and had a particular flavor. Twenty-five Saddle-Rocks could fill a bushel. By 1832, they died out because there were so few on this small exposed reef at low tide and the demand was ravenous.
Learn a good oyster-opening technique -- Oysters are reluctant bivalves whose adductor muscles hold shut shells with such suction that there seems no way to pry them open. Some boorish people use hammers to smash them open, but this is no way to treat a delicacy.
One needs to remove an oyster from its home with the same aplomb that a pickpocket removes a wallet. The mollusk should not even be conscious of the violation of its armor.
Oyster knives are as multifarious as the oysters themselves. You can find Chesapeake Stabbers, Galveston knives, Boston Stabbers, the Frenchman, Crack Knives or -- my favorite -- my beloved New Haven, popular in all of New England. Because there are so few shuckers today, one can hardly find these oyster knives. If you do, say at a flea market, buy and keep it; cherish it.
I open oysters with the hinge method for which the New Haven is best suited. I find the black mass between the upper and lower shells where they hinge together and with some force wedge the tip of the knife in and, with a careful push and wiggle, pop the adductor muscles and quickly jerk all around to open.
Eat them raw and keep prep simple -- The gastronomic oyster in its purest state is raw. If you are eating raw oysters I see no reason to garnish them with anything but a few drops from a lemon. I don't fancy mignonette (vinegar-based) dressing. As the poet Charles Krumling (about whom I otherwise know nothing) wrote in 1910:
Don't drown him in vinegar
or season him at all,
Don't cover up his shining form
with pepper like a Pall,
But gently lift him from his shell
and firmly hold your breath,
Then with your eager tongue and teeth
just tickle him to death.
Don't chew excessively! -- What about chewing oysters? Do you chew or just swallow? It is not true that one does not bite into an oyster. Oysters should slide into the mouth from the shell with their liquor and then be caressed with the tongue and given three or four bites before swallowing. Little forks meant to pick the oyster up used in restaurants are fine, but letting them slide in from the shell is preferred because you capture all the juice.
The first oyster eaten alive and on its shell is a kind of gastronomic loss of virginity. The world's greatest lover, Giacomo Casanova de Seingalt (1725-1798) believed that eating oysters would spur love and the analogies between the oyster and female genitalia have long rested on the symbolic comparison of the pearl nestled in the soft interior.
Get your zinc for a healthy love life -- Beyond visual or olfactory resemblances, the high zinc content of oysters is sometimes given as an explanation for these bivalves' flair as an aphrodisiac -- zinc deficiency in men can lead to impotence. That is all fun to consider as you eat oysters, or exchange them with your partner, but there is no good science on the matter.
If you HAVE to cook them, don't overdo it -- Oysters cooked should be barely so.
If an oyster does not close its shell, it is dead, so pass those by. While learning how to shuck oysters, my former brother-in-law once asked me how he could tell whether an oyster was no good. At that very moment he opened a dead one, his head jerked back from the odor, and he said, "I guess that's how."
Zester Daily contributor Clifford A. Wright won the James Beard / KitchenAid Cookbook of the Year Award and the James Beard Award for the Best Writing on Food in 2000 for "A Mediterranean Feast." His latest book is "Hot & Cheesy" (Wiley) about cooking with cheese.
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