The Oyster, Considered (Mary Frances, I Did It For You)

The treasure chest, locked up tight.

(edited to change title and add links)

Consider the oyster, M. F. K. Fisher wrote.

Oh, that I had the courage, I thought.  I read on.

Fisher went on to describe the process by which oysters come into being, a sort of anonymous, androgynous conception and birth, and the life of the tiny baby oyster, the spat, as it drifted free and breezy on the tides, until ready to attach to the first solid object in its path, or the sandy bottom of the bay.

I was fascinated. I read on.

Fisher wove her lyrical net, baiting it with a voluptuous recounting of the best oyster stew she had ever had, in a dark, tiny dive of a place, on a frigid, long night in New England.

I had to have it.

After much procrastination and trepidation, I sauntered into my local fish market, and eyed the crusty, intimidating creatures on their bed of ice in the case. I couldn’t walk out without them, that would be silly. But I couldn’t quite bring myself to call out my order, until the owner glanced at me and asked, “What can I get for you?”

It was now or never.

I asked for a dozen oysters. As he counted them out, he asked what I was going to do with them. I said I had never had an oyster before, so I thought I would make oyster stew. He replied, with what I believed was concern for my culinary skills, that he had some already shucked, would I like those instead? I smiled and said, “If I am going to cook with oysters, shouldn’t I know how to shuck them?” He asked if I had an oyster knife, which I had procured only the day before. I said yes.

He motioned for me to come around the counter to the prep station.

He deftly shucked an oyster, right there in front of me, explaining exactly what he was doing at each step. Voila, he laid before me the beautifully shucked raw oyster, put a bit of cocktail sauce on it, and asked with a gleam in his eye, “Would you like to try it?”

It was an unexpected offer, a type of peer pressure, a food challenge a la “Survivor”. I would feel like such a child if I didn’t try it, and besides, he had been so nice to show me how to shuck my oysters, and offer me a fresh, free oyster (such confidence in his product!), and if I didn’t eat it, how would my relationship to this fishmonger be affected? I gingerly picked up the half-shell, and tipped it into my mouth all at once.

Nirvana. Eyes popping, I cried out, “Wow!” It was like tasting all the best flavors of the sea. Briny, sweet, delicate, and gone all too quickly. I had to have more.

“That was incredible. Now I don’t have to cook them!” I departed triumphantly, his hearty laughter ringing in my ears.

Prying open the lock.

Popping open the hinge.

Cutting the oyster free.

The treasure claimed.

The smaller, most remarkable Bluepoint.

The oysters in these photos are Wellfleets and Bluepoints, obtained on my next greedy trip to the fish market. I did indeed make oyster stew with the Wellfleets, but the oysters I bought that first liberating day, diminutive Malpeques from Prince Edward Island, never made it anywhere near a pan. I shucked another as soon as I got home, and eagerly poured it, naked and alive in its shell, into my waiting mouth, savoring the moment and all its flavors; brine, sweetness, adventure, freedom, fearlessness, art, and life.

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