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6 february 2011

I first ate oysters on the half shell 25 years ago, in Hoboken, New Jersey. Initiation into the tribe of oyster-eaters is a theme in Rebecca Stott's marvelous book Oyster, an early volume in Reaktion Books' Animal series. The first raw oyster one eats has overtones of refinement of taste, coming of age, even sexual experience, says Stott. But it's also a kind of juvenile dare: you're going to eat that?

Oysters are full of contradictions, and Stott systematically explores them. Paramount are the contradictory class associations of oyster cuisine. Oysters have, from ancient times, been a food of the ultra-wealthy: a dish that Roman epicures would consume by the scores and then vomit up again so they could eat some more. They're associated with profligacy and gratuitous expense. Aristocracies throughout the pre-modern world would have oysters shipped in barrels far inland, entailing great waste, so that the surviving shellfish could impress guests and patrons.

Yet at the same time, for the poor folk of seaside towns, oysters have long been the rock-bottom subsistence food. Wild oysters are not hard to hunt, given that they just sit there. And while they're difficult to open, they require no cooking, in fact no slaughter: down they go alive. Pepper and vinegar besides are very good indeed, as Lewis Carroll's Walrus said, but really an oyster, eaten living and whole, is the simplest food on earth.

And there's another contradiction, explored in many of the agonizing texts about oysters that Stott quotes. Oysters are the ne plus ultra of foodie sophistication. A fascinating full-color ad from the 1960s, reprinted in Oyster, connects raw oysters to caviar, truffles, and Porsches (99). (They're all "acquired tastes.") But indulging this sophistication means doing something plebeian, even savage: ripping open a living organism and swallowing it whole.

Food is notoriously plastic in cultural terms. Its class associations are arbitrary. Piatti di poveri are continually reinvented in upscale food magazines, where the latest refinement usually involves polenta, brovade, or some sort of trendy risotto that in common terms would frankly be called porridge. Oysters mark the extremest contradictions of the culinary world.

Oysters were not really part of my Midwestern upbringing, which involved a diet heavy on beef, potatoes, and canned vegetables. Now that I live in a part of Texas far from the sea, they're not an everyday food either. But I am drawn irresistibly to them as soon as I get off a plane in an oyster center. Some of my best food memories include Felix's in New Orleans and the Grand Central oyster bar (which also features in Stott's Oyster). The oysters in Grand Central Station, in particular, come with extensive (and expensive) provenances that demand and instill connoisseurship in the clientele.

But the best oysters I ever had were fried, in a po' boy, in a modest seafood shack on Texas's Bolivar Peninsula, across the strait from Galveston Island – long before Hurricane Ike scoured the traces of that oyster shack to the ground, if indeed it still existed in 2008. Gourmets encountering that po' boy, as Ogden Nash might have said, would have scorned it through a lorgnette. But who cares? Food, in the last analysis, is in the passing physical instant, and with an oyster in your mouth, you are momentarily free from the impositions of society.

Stott, Rebecca. Oyster. London: Reaktion, 2004.