The proper way to shuck the raw, unassuming and unpretentious oyster, right handed:
Extend your left hand flat in front of you sheathed in a thick rubber glove. Place oyster lengthwise in palm. The oyster is an apostrophe with the narrow end towards you, rounded end away.
Place oyster knife in right hand then locate the gap between the top and the bottom half with two slightly rounded ends at the point.
Insert oyster knife tip between these two rounded ends, driving it in hard between this gap while twisting slowly and slightly. Get a slight “bite” and begin to pry the two half-shells apart. Continue driving in deeper while twisting and with a slight crack, the shells (should) come apart.
Leave oyster on lower half-shell and gently place it on a shallow tray of crushed ice. Viola!
… Or just grasp the slimy oyster between the knife and your thumb and suck the unpretentious, seafoody, salty thing down. Like tasting the ocean!
Particularly when I travel, I’m in search of the perfect dozen raw oysters on the half-shell. Which, lucky for me as it turns out, is pretty much any dozen raw oysters on the half-shell, anytime, anywhere. But context matters: where you are, what you’re looking at, who you’re with. I met my wife Carol over oysters so who you’re with can be especially important.
Last fall I found myself at a conference in Baltimore. In the evening I walked alone around the inner harbor, guided by the glowing neon light of the huge “Rusty Scupper” sign.
Seated alone on the upper floor at a table for two beside the sprawling picture window overlooking the boats of the harbor, I reflected on the water as it reflected the evening’s city lights. My waitress was a young lady from the Dominican Republic. We chatted about Caribbean life, I having visited a few islands over the years.
Florida oysters are hard to come by in Baltimore; I ordered a half-dozen Chincoteague Island Oysters from Battle Creek, Virginia, and the other half Chesapeake Bay Oysters from a place called War Shore, Virginia. Slowly and deliberately, I consumed each lovely, unpretentious, salty, seafoody, slimy morsel while gazing wistfully out the window, recalling my love affair with water, oysters and Carol. I wished she was there. So just for her, I ordered another dozen.
Meanwhile this past January, Carol found herself at a leadership training in San Diego. I’m back in Illinois, but she sends me a text with a selfie pic: She’s smiling widely over a dozen raw at a seafood market restaurant in Ocean Beach near San Diego. The oysters had come by truck up from Mexico, preventing them from succumbing to the pressure of flying (I know how they feel). She ordered another dozen, for me.
Later this Spring I found myself in Jackson, Mississippi, ground zero of the civil rights struggle, with the Confederate flag flying proudly in the upper left corner of the flag of the state of Mississippi. I was there for a conference hosted by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation which currently funds one of my research projects. I knew from experience that RWJF meetings have particularly great receptions. This one was at the “Two Mississippi Museums”: one for history and one for the civil rights struggle.
At the reception, friendly waiters passed out “heavy hors-doeuvres” including the mobile raw-bar: a tall young guy sporting a man-bun and carrying a large wooden tray strapped around his neck and shoulders full of crushed ice and raw oysters on the half-shell. I sent his picture to Carol, who wondered if I cleaned him out. Trying not to look like a drooling, greedy slob, I kept it to three at a time (over repeated re-visits). Raw oysters can be a pricey habit — so given the free mobile raw bar — I of course gave the conference rave reviews in my post-meeting assessment.
The Saturday after Valentine’s Day found me in Savannah, Georgia, sitting at the concrete topped raw bar at Fiddler’s Crab House along the brick-paved riverfront of the Savannah River with my grandson Everest. Even though it was the day after Valentine’s Day, Carol wasn’t with me. I was visiting Savannah with Everest’s mom, my daughter Lauren, who was over visiting the graduate school at the Savannah College of Art and Design.
Everest (who had just turned 1) and I were checking out the town by ourselves. It was mid-afternoon and nobody was seated at the raw bar, so he and I sat down at the bar and ordered a dozen raw and for me, a local “Lincoln’s Gift” beer from Savannah’s own Service Brewery. It’s an “Oyster Stout” with a bit of a back story:
Union General William Tecumseh Sherman torched most of the Confederate South on his 1864 March to the Sea, but his swath of destruction met its end when he came upon the lovely city of Savannah, GA. Overcome by its beauty and bounty, tough old Sherman presented an unscathed Savannah to President Abraham Lincoln as a Christmas gift.
Service Brewing Co. honors the 16th president of these United States with a beer based on one of Lincoln’s other favorite gifts — the kind that come from the sea. Lincoln’s Gift is a sweet stout brewed with locally harvested May River oysters, giving this traditional dark beer a slightly briny character.
I finished the first dozen and ordered another, for Carol of course. If you were curious, Everest selected the saltines and a plastic cup of water.
My oyster shucker told me these oysters hail from Appalachicola, a city just south and west of Tallahassee, Florida, where I met Carol while we were grad students at Florida State.
I had only recently met Carol when she hosted a grad student party at her house with a large spread including raw oysters on the half-shell. She was with another guy at the time, but I assure you, this was the beginning of our very long relationship.
Later on, my buddy Bill and I hosted oyster roasts at the three-bedroom house we rented on the outskirts of Tallahassee. We’d drive down to Appalachicola, finding a roadside fish market selling oysters by the bushel and pick up a gunny sack full for twenty-five bucks. We’d take them back, start a bonfire with concrete blocks on both sides, and stretch a large metal grate across. Then we’d spread out the oysters, toss the soaked gunny sack over them, letting the tasty morsels steam until just after the pressure pops them open, removing each before the juicy seawater inside steams away. Fire-roasted oysters combine steamy seawater with that smoky wood-fired flavor: Pure heaven.
One nice thing about hosting oyster roasts is that lots of friends come by and drink your beer around your bonfire, but few of them actually eat your oysters. Not so Carol. She came over (without the guy) and she and I stood by the fire, consuming most of what we roasted. This was just before we were “an item”, so not long after that… well, that’s another tale.
Leaving Savannah, Lauren, Everest and I drove down to Jacksonville, Florida, for a couple days, where I grew up and where most of my family resides. Before leaving for Illinois, I rode out to Harold’s Meat Market on North Main Street. Sure enough, they had out their roughly scribbled sign advertising oysters at $60 a bushel. I got a half-bushel for $35, dumped them in the cooler brought for just this purpose, covered them in ice and transported them back home.
Arriving home, I figured Carol might want to do an elegant preparation, so I dumped them in the kitchen sink rinsing them down. I stood there at the sink, driving in the oyster knife, twisting and shucking each one then carefully laying them out on their half-shells on our little square plate. Carol came over and stood beside me at the sink, taking one for herself and feeding one to me as I kept on shucking til they were no more.
Context matters: who you’re with and what you’re looking at. She and I together, more than four dozen raw standing by the kitchen sink. Simple, unpretentious, raw and glorious, a lot like the oyster itself. Perfect.