FOOD FOR THOUGHT
Mark R. Vogel
In the 1988 movie Shoot to Kill, FBI agent Warren Stantin (played by Sidney Poitier), and mountain man Jonathan Knox (played by Tom Berenger), are deep in the wilderness of the Pacific Northwest, searching for a killer who’s holding Knox’s girlfriend hostage. Late one night they’re sitting in front of a fire eating what Stantin thinks is a rabbit. Stantin, a city boy, is espousing the benefits of urban life, amongst which are the variety of foods available. He mentions oysters in particular. Knox subsequently informs Stantin that he is not eating rabbit, but marmot, a large rodent. Stanton is horrified and begins spewing expletives. Knox calmly replies: “That’s OK; I think oysters taste like snot.”
Berenger’s character is certainly not the first to make mucoid references about oysters. And while they may not look appetizing, and texturally are somewhat squiggly, I must sharply disagree with his taste analogy. Fresh oysters have a briny and sometimes, depending on the variety, a sweet flavor.
Oysters are mollusks, one of the two main classifications of shellfish (the other being crustaceans). Mollusks are invertebrates (animals without a backbone), with soft bodies covered by a shell. To further classify, they are bivalves, which means they have two shells hinged together by a muscle.
Oysters are found all over the world. There are three main species. The Pacific or Japanese oyster, the Eastern or Atlantic, and the Olympia, found in Washington’s Puget Sound. Within the Pacific and Atlantic species are many sub varieties differentiated by their place of origin. Due to environmental variation from one locale to another, even identical species can vary in taste. Much like the same grape grown in Napa and Bordeaux will taste differently.
Pacific oysters include Hog Island, Sweetwaters, and Westcott Bay. Atlantic oysters include Wellfleet, Chincoteague, Kent Island, Malpeque, Cape Cod, Indian River, and the coveted Bluepoint, considered the best for eating raw. Bluepoints were originally named for Blue Point, Long Island, but now the term is generally applied to any Atlantic oyster two to four inches long.
Oysters are available year round. There’s an old wives’ tale that states you can’t eat them during any month that doesn’t have an “R’ in its name, namely May, June and July. This is blatantly not true, but raw oysters do taste better in the fall and winter since summer is when they spawn. The smaller the oyster, the tenderer it is. Due to prohibitive shipping costs, and the fact that oysters are highly perishable, you generally find Atlantic and Pacific oysters only at their respective coasts.
It is absolutely imperative that your oysters be fresh, especially if you plan to consume them raw. As with clams, avoid ones that are cracked, or are open and won’t close when tapped. Toss any that fail to open during cooking. They say that you can keep them in a refrigerator covered by a damp towel for up to three days but I strongly recommend you use them within a day. Personally, I always buy oysters and all shellfish for that matter the same day I plan to use them. Oysters are good sources of protein, calcium, niacin, and iron.
Oysters are amenable to a number of cooking methods including steaming, sautéing, grilling, frying and baking. However, I am a purist and ardently prefer them raw on the half shell with cocktail sauce, a little Tabasco, and plenty of lemon juice. And, if you really want to feel like you died and went to heaven, chase those little buggers with some champagne. Champagne and oysters is a classic pairing but a crisp Chablis would work as well. Despite my preference for raw oysters, fried oysters are wonderful too. Here’s my recipe for pan-fried oysters.
2 tablespoons mayonnaise
2 tablespoons Dijon mustard
¼ teaspoon onion powder
½ teaspoon Old Bay seasoning
Salt and pepper to taste
Juice from about 4 oysters
1 dozen oysters
Seasoned bread crumbs, as needed
Olive oil as needed
First make the sauce by combining the mayonnaise, mustard, onion powder, Old Bay, salt and pepper. Then begin opening the oysters, adding the juice from about four of them into the sauce. The goal is to incorporate as much juice as possible without producing a watery sauce. Shuck the oysters and coat with bread crumbs that you’ve seasoned with salt and pepper. Pour enough olive oil into a skillet to come halfway up the sides of the oysters. Heat the olive oil until it just starts to smoke and fry the oysters for about a minute on each side. Drain and serve. If you like, you could also deep fry them by dropping them into a pot of hot oil.