Friday, December 14, 2007

Aw, Shucks.

Like holiday music, clementines and Nor'easters, oysters are only around in the winter. Well, they're actually always around, but they're in season and at their best in the winter, or, as the rule goes, in the months ending with an "r". Having grown up on the east coast, I've been an oyster lover since childhood. I have fond memories of driving to the wharf on the shores of the Potomac, where men in rubber overalls and knit caps sold seafood by the bushel. My father would always buy a half bushel of fresh Maryland crabs while my mother sauntered off in search of the Mollusk Man, a fisherman with the freshest oysters around, shucked in 15 seconds flat (and that's for a dozen of them).

I remember being intrigued, but cautious, the first time I saw my mom walk by all of the condiments, choosing instead only to squirt each shiny, shapeless mass with fresh lemon juice. Tilting her head back to catch every drop of juice, the oyster slid off it's shell and into her mouth in one swift move, like swallowing a pill. She smiled, exhaled, and moved on to the remaining 11 oysters. By the time my dad came back with the bushel of angry, snapping blue crabs, she'd already knocked back the entire plate of oysters with military precision. It took a few more visits to the wharf that fall before I was ready to give them a try for myself, but once I did I never looked back. The sensation is a bit strange at first, but the feel of a good oyster is unmistakable. Pillowy soft and slippery, the perfect oyster is medium sized with a glossy sheen and the fresh taste of the sea. The texture and "rawness" of oysters is undoubtedly what makes them seem so off putting to so many, but to me is what makes them so special.

It's this time of year, when my mother comes to visit, that we recreate my childhood oyster memories. Though we're no longer able to visit the wharf, we do go sit at the bar of one of my favorite restaurants, Blue Ribbon, and order up a plate of oysters with extra lemon wedges. There are a lot more varieties to choose from these days, though we both not surprisingly prefer the east coast oysters that we've eaten for so many years. Because I didn't know much about oysters when I was 8, I'm guessing by the region we lived in that we probably ate Chesapeake oysters. Since I now live in New York, we typically eat Blue Points, the most common restaurant oyster on the east coast (they're from Long Island) or Canadian Malpeque's from Prince Edward Island which are quickly catching on in popularity. The easiest way to tell east coast oysters from west coast oysters (like Kumamoto's) is by their shells, which are large, thick, and tough for the east coast, and thin and rippled for the west coast.

There's no actual recipe today since I mostly enjoy oysters raw on the half shell (though I will take them deep fried, battered, and popcorn style, thank you), but I did want to bring their seasonal status to your attention, and encourage you to try some before they're out of season. If you've been afraid to try them before, I urge you to bite the bullet and give them a chance this year. Go to a reputable restaurant that you know always has fresh, seasonal seafood. If you decide to buy and shuck them yourself, remember to check that they smell fresh and of the sea--they should not smell fishy or foul. Good luck!


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