Sunday, April 10, 2011

On the Half Shell

photo courtesy ChefTom
Last night I ate my first raw oyster in thirty-odd years. The last time I had them was as a 12-year-old girl on one of our annual New Orleans family vacations, at either Messina's or Visco's (I think both are out of business now).

On this particular trip, we had already feasted on beignets at both Morning Call and Cafe du Monde, muffulettas at Central Grocery, and a crawfish boil at a roadside stand that also served cayenne-injected fried chicken. Despite our pre-teen status, we had all sipped Pat O'Brien's hurricanes out of boxes on Bourbon Street (just a taste). We had gone crabbing in the lake using shrimp for bait that was considerably nicer and fancier than any shrimp I'd ever eaten until then. And then we ate the crabs.

I bring all this up, somewhat defensively, by way of pointing out that I was not then -- nor have I ever been -- a fussy, or picky, eater. I was excited about going to an oyster bar for dinner. I wasn't exactly sure what one was, but I was certainly game.

I remember sitting in a row with our host family, pulled up to something like a trough. The "bartender" shucked the oysters and shoved them out to the waiting patrons as fast as he could. His name was Danny, and I was competing with my arch-nemesis (and host daughter), Laura, for his attention. I think the only garnish was lemons, though maybe there was cocktail sauce or even mignonette. Having sucked the heads of a countless abundance of crawfish at lunch, I was undeterred by their unfamiliar appearance and ready to have at it.

And then Laura threw me off, with a long-winded, complicated explanation of how to eat oysters ("you have to swallow them whole and whatever you do don't bite into it; slurp it, don't suck it" etc etc). She then slid one over that was about the size of the palm of my hand, and said, with more venom than good-hearted mischief, "cheers!"

I tipped up the shell and slurped for all I was worth, sucking down a few salty drops of ocean and the beginning of what would've been the oyster, when halfway through the operation, it became clear that its little valve (or whatever) was still attached -- about the time I bit down, despite the express instruction not to. It hurt my teeth so bad I saw stars, and that was nothing compared to the awkwardness of having my meal half in and half out of my mouth -- not going down, but not exactly coming up either. I was mortified. Bested by my dinner, I dropped the whole thing into the trough, and drank an entire glass of ginger ale to cover the tears of pain and embarrassment. I was slightly consoled when Danny shucked forth a practically microscopic little pearl and handed it to me later in the evening, though we'd been cautioned ahead of time that the oysters we eat are not the same oysters that make jewelry -- all I know is I got one, and more importantly, Laura did not.

Unfortunately, since I didn't get right back on the horse -- there were no more oyster bars that visit -- I never really got around to overcoming that initial incident. They don't show up on that many menus this far inland, so it's never been much of an issue.

So, when they appeared at last night's birthday dinner -- where I was surrounded by friends who wouldn't judge -- I had a taste from Chef Tom's oyster platter. They were salty and icy and spicy and slid right down with a slight clean taste of lemony ocean.

I think I'll have another!

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