Tastes generally tend to mature. Things we may have looked upon with disdain as children may yet become one of our favorite bites as adults. Every now and then, however, the maturing process can get stuck in reverse gear. Such is my story with oysters.
I suspect it was probably a great surprise to my parents when I ordered my first fried oyster dinner. At some point in my childhood that became my regular order at Shoney’s, and that’s where all my early oyster memories, good and bad, are replayed. Something had to come before the hot fudge cake or strawberry pie, after all. Why not oysters? And so it went for many, many visits, until it happened. I got a bad one. Not a spoiled one that made me sick, just one with a bad taste or odd texture that ended my dedication to that branch of the shellfish family. And that was that.
Years later, as a young man, I faced my fears and consumed my first raw oyster. The flashbacks are fuzzy, but I’m sure the bite involved a cracker, an oyster, and a lot of cocktail sauce. It was mostly swallowing, very little chewing, and not a great deal of appreciating. I could then say I had tried a raw oyster, and I could mark that off the bucket list. And that was that.
Enter present day. For the last couple of decades, at least, I have managed to avoid contact with oysters. Even on a long fried seafood buffet line, there are always plenty of other fish in the sea, and oysters never seem essential for a balanced meal. But at last weekend’s Southern Foodways Alliance Symposium, there they were before me again. Because the food there is always so good, I dare not let something pass me by, regardless of my history with the ingredient (coconut being the exception). Thus, I dove back in and gave them another shot.
At one of the pre-symposium special dinners, I joined three New-Yorkers at Snackbar restaurant in Oxford. As I sat down, the waitress delivered a dozen oysters to our table that my new friends had ordered before I arrived. Three kinds of oysters from three different waters were represented on the platter that night, one set being from Apalachicola, Fla. Apalachicola oysters were not unfamiliar to me, but the article I had read featured a restaurant that offered dozens of different baked varieties - think “Oysters Rockefeller” gone viral. These in front of me, however, were not baked, not coated with bread crumbs or cheese of any sort, not accented with bacon. Just the oysters and the shells God gave them. But the Apalachicola specimens were the smallest of them all, so I took the plunge. Three condiment options were also available to help disguise my memories: horseradish, cocktail, and mignonette sauce, which is a wine and vinegar-based sauce with shallots and pepper. I took the oyster in its half-shell, poured in as much mignonette sauce as it could hold and tossed it in my mouth. Truthfully, it wasn’t as bad as I expected it to be, but I still could not determine the fascination with these creatures and left the other eleven for my new buddies from Manhattan. Until the next day.
On the first morning of the symposium, I arrived anticipating the first food of the day. Any guesses? Yep. Oysters. Raw ones, too, from Shooting Point Oyster Company in Virginia. I knew that they must be good, as oysters go – they were hand cultured heirloom oysters, for goodness’ sake. But I had done my part to thin the burgeoning oyster population the night before, so I chose to refrain. Then I saw my friend Richard from New Orleans who exclaimed, “Have you tried the oysters? They are fabulous!” “I’m just not an oyster guy”, I replied. Geez. Now I felt guilty. So I got a little plate, waited my turn for shucking, drowned it in more mignonette sauce, and ingested my second one in less than twenty-four hours. That’s not a lot for people who down a dozen or three in one sitting. It was a lot for me. I chased it with a couple of Saltines, and declared that I had experienced quite enough oysters for a while. And that was that. Until the next day.
We sat down for a four course lunch and you know the story by now. This time the oysters were cooked, however – we were making progress. It was a sercial-perfumed May River oyster and Capers Inlet Clam Pan Roast. As for the clams, I prefer mine fried, and these were a bit more on the chewy side than I typically enjoy. I tried an oyster and was taken back to my childhood, particularly to that day when I quit liking oysters. I finished the broth they came in (it was very nicely done), pushed my mollusks to the side, and waited for the next course. When those around me realized I was not going to finish them, they were incredulous. But I stood my ground – “I’m just not an oyster guy, you see.” They had no idea how far beyond the call of duty I had already gone in the previous twenty-four hours. And that, as they say, was that.