Getting shucked

*Prologue: The answer I was looking for in Monday’s riddle was an oyster, though those of you who guessed a fish might also be right. Want to collect your prize? E-mail me.

American oysters differ as much as American people, so that the Atlantic Coast inhabitants spend their childhood and adolescence floating free and unprotected with the tides, conceived far from their mothers and their fathers too by milt let loose in the water near the eggs, while the Western oysters lie within special brood-chambers of the maternal shell, inseminated and secure, until they are some two weeks old. The Easterners seem more daring.”
                                                                                                        -MFK Fisher, Consider the Oyster

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Rarely does a mollusk inspire the kind of passion, adoration and mystique that surrounds the oyster…. People don’t spew forth emphatically about mussels, or clams or even scallops the way they do about oysters.

It isn’t particularly difficult to see why. Oysters are a study in contrasts; complex bivalves that offer a little something for everyone. Find me another food that’s coveted by Manhattan lawyer-types and Southern good ol’ boys with equal zeal. They are prized as local delicacies in Wellfleet and Apalachicola, yet touted as signs of worldly sophistication in restaurants across the globe. They can be stunningly simply to prepare, but have a taste that is subtly complex.

I have to admit that it was not love at first sight for me and oysters. I had to have been about 11 the first time one was presented to me. We were at my grandmother’s house in Charleston, South Carolina and a good old-fashioned oyster roast was taking place around her kitchen table. My father plucked a steaming bivalve from the newspaper-covered table, opened it and handed it to me- I remember thinking in my child’s mind that the organism inside looked like a cross between a snot and a slug. All eyes were on me as I took my first slurp- it was warm and slimy and salty, kind of what I imagined having some one else’s tongue in your mouth would be like. I closed my eyes and swallowed hard, willing my body to overpower the gag reflex that was kicking like angry mule in my throat. Everyone laughed, but the oyster stayed down. I didn’t eat another for a long, long time.

Now, when recounting great meals, I often remember the oysters. There was an assortment of Kumamotos and Blue Points at Blue Marlin in Madison, Wisconsin, a “bucket” of several dozen Apalachicola’s at Lee and Rick’s in Orlando and some toro-wrapped lovelies at Michy’s in Miami. But while I’ll eat oysters as often as I can out, I’ve never been able to bring myself to eat them at home. They seem too volatile, too messy for my little apartment. I also happen to be miserable at shucking them.

turner'sAll this was in mind as I drove up to Gloucester last week to meet Jim Turner, President of Turner’s Seafood. I’d never been to their charming wood shingled building on Smith Street, a throw-back type of place where they operate by the mantra “Anything fresher still swims” and the day’s catch is written on a chalk board out front. Their Melrose restaurant is hosting an oyster festival later this month, so Jim was eager to talk mollusks.

“It’s all about trusting the source when it comes to oysters,” Jim said. He buys a variety of them from all over the East Coast and also Canada and Washington state for his oyster bar- they go through about 2,000 oysters a week at Turner’s.

Oysters get their flavor from the salinity in the water, he said. Hence oysters from different regions will have different tastes, much like wine. He also told me that you can tell an oyster’s age by the rings on its shell (kind of like a tree) and explained that oysters grow slower in cold water— it will take an oyster farmer in Maine five years to grow an oyster the size of a three-year-old one from Florida.

Jim had a few on hand for a shucking lesson, though Gloucester’s water ban sadly meant tasting was out of the question. But thanks to his expertise, I’m proud to say I no longer shuck at shucking!

For more oyster fun, you can hit up Turner Seafood’s Oyster Fest, September 9 to 30th. The Malden event will feature oysters from Maine, Cape Cod and the coastal Northwest and will include a special menu showcasing the revered bivalve.

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