Tuesday, November 18, 2014

The Fine Art of Oysters

Maybe the title ought to say something about eating oysters. Apart from the pearls they can produce, but rarely do, there’s nothing fine or artful about oysters. They grow in what look like accretions on the sides of whatever they can attach themselves to, and their outer shells present nothing that might inspire a painter. (Although, that said, they appear in the occasional Dutch sill life.) Once bared to the world, they still look a bit daunting, and it’s small wonder that the old remark about the bravery of the first man who ate a raw oyster gets trotted out by the would-be wit who thinks we haven’t heard that one. So, it’s eating them that involves skill, even art.

I’ve been enjoying oysters on the half shell for about fifty years now, and the first thing I’d like to do is to poo-poo the myths that often attend eating raw ones. From time to time we get news of pollution getting into the oyster beds, of mercury poisoning, of painful death from unknown bacterial infections, and other dire consequences of not having oysters thoroughly cooked. These and other warnings are the products of either the news media, who are short on their usual tripe to print, or the hand wringings of the uninitiated who stand outside oyster bars and cluck their distaste at connoisseurs who know better about the joys of eating oysters. So much for them.

The best place to get raw oysters, hands down, is the Acme Oyster Bar on Iberville Street in the French Quarter of New Orleans. I went there today for lunch, and it’s the same place it’s been for the fifty years I mentioned. A second possibility is Felix’s across the street, just in case the line to get into the Acme winds all the way up to Bourbon Street. It often does, especially at night, but the Acme opens at 11:00 AM for lunch and is less busy if you go then. You can sit at the bar if you want.

In you go, get seated, order an Abita Amber beer and a dozen on the half shell.

The dozen arrive and you set to work. You’ll need to make yourself a sauce. This consists of ketchup, horseradish, and fresh-squeezed lemon juice. On the side sits a bottle of Louisiana Crystal hot sauce. A healthy squeeze of ketchup first, then as much horseradish as suits you, but be careful here. The idea of is to enhance the oysters and not to overpower them. Be careful with the hot sauce too.

Lance saltine crackers are not available everywhere, but you’ll find them here. They provide transportation. Dip an oyster into your sauce and fork it onto a saltine. And eat it all at once. Pure heaven. And you have eleven more, all yours.

Sharing. Well, I’m of the persuasion that everyone is better off with his or her own dozen. Once in North Carolina when I ordered raw oysters, my sister, who had never dared to try one before, decided to have one of mine. She ended up eating four of my dozen. While I was glad that she found herself enjoying something she had five minutes before thought utterly disgusting, I was still out four oysters. So, if you’re with anyone who seems at all curious about the possibility of helping you eat your oysters, my advice is to forestall both their curiosity and your annoyance at having been nicked out of the dozen you were looking forward to.

I know that I sound as if you can’t find oysters everywhere, even in jars in most markets. But they simply aren’t the same as those that are ice cold, freshly shucked, and sitting on their half shells, arrayed around a platter with a healthy amount of your sauce in the middle.

New Orleans prides itself on its cuisine, and that includes cooking oysters in various ways. I do not want to disparage those recipes, and a fine Oysters Rockefeller can be just the right appetizer with a cold glass of champagne before a lovely dinner. Oysters show up in all sorts of other traditional recipes like gumbos and stews. All well and good, but for me and my house, we will serve them raw.

Robert Heylmun 
 18 November 2014 

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