Perhaps it’s their shells, the contours mimicking the landscapes they inhabit, craggy coastlines in miniature.
Perhaps it’s their pungent, briny liquor, crashing likce surf across the tongue. Perhaps it’s those evocative names, derived from actual locales: Pemaquid! Skookum! Tatamagouche! Or perhaps it’s because they’re still alive when you eat them. Does any food pack such a powerful sense of place?
Rare is the culture that doesn’t love oysters. They are everywhere. But they’re also decidedly Somewhere: within its singular shell, each oyster carries its provenance like a fingerprint. Knocking one back is like mainlining the cove it came from.
In today’s global food economy, geography is more or less moot. Maine lobsters turn up in São Paulo, Dungeness crab in Shanghai, Norwegian salmon roe at your suburban IKEA. I live in New York City, where pretty much any foreign delicacy is readily had, from jamón ibérico to blowfish. But not English Colchesters or French Belons or South African Knysnas or hundreds of other varieties of oyster that thrive beyond our shores. The U.S. government forbids the import of oysters from abroad, with exceptions for those from Canada, Mexico, Chile, South Korea, and New Zealand (the latter three are almost never sold stateside, in any case). Oysters are among the last of the “go-to” foods: you have to go to them.
So for three years I’ve done just that, circling the globe on an international oyster quest—part-time, mind you, but with full-time conviction. It helps that I travel for a living. Wherever my peregrinations take me, bivalves form the subplot. I’ve sampled minerally Grebbestads in Göteborg, monstrous madrasensis oysters in Mumbai, clean-flavored Nha Trangs in Saigon, fishy Mali Stons in Croatia. I’ve combed 19 countries in search of the perfect oyster, and the perfect oyster bar. And though I’ve eaten several thousand since my quest began—and twice sliced my hand shucking them—I’ve never once tired of their taste.
I first fell for oysters at New York’s Grand Central Station, where the renowned Oyster Bar, opened in 1913, serves 2 million bivalves a year. On a standard night they’ll list 30 on the menu: Moonstones from Rhode Island; Phantom Creeks from British Columbia; Meximotos from Baja; perhaps savory Conway Cups from Prince Edward Island—which taste, no joke, like chicken. Just as every celebrated stage actress finds her way to Broadway, every North American oyster worth its salt makes its way to Grand Central. There’s an irony in this, for New York Harbor was once the hub of all Oysterdom, sending its bountiful harvest across the nation and around the world. The great tide has since reversed: today the city exports none and imports untold millions.
Many a night I passed in the vaulted chambers of Grand Central, conferring with shucker Luis Iglesias about his picks for the day. My favorites were invariably East Coast. It’s said that people prefer oysters from the water they grew up swimming in, and that’s certainly true for me. Devouring a briny Maine oyster never fails to catapult me back to childhood summers, inhaling that brisk seafoamy air and, just as often, a wave up my nose.
Biologists have documented some 400 species of oysters worldwide. But even within the same species no two will have the exact same flavor, depending on water temperature, salinity levels, tidal patterns, mating cycles, the plankton they eat, and the mineral content of their habitat. The variables can be infinitesimal: a Wellfleet, Massachusetts, oyster harvested at six feet deep may taste wholly unlike one found at seven. The thrill of oyster-eating is picking up on nuances of texture and taste from one hemisphere, continent, bay, or creek to the next.
Like wine, oysters exhibit a discernible terroir. Indeed, the vocabulary of oyster flavors overlaps with that of wine: terms like “crisp,” “buttery,” and “flinty” are common, as are comparisons to cucumber, melon, and green apple. The menu at Boston’s Neptune Oyster bar—an Art Deco jewel box in the North End—has some particularly fanciful (some might say absurd) descriptions, noting a “buttered popcorn” finish in the Katama Bays from Martha’s Vineyard, traces of “mushroom” in the Marion Ports, also from Massachusetts, “raw sweet pea” in Rhode Island’s Rome Points, even “hints of Brie” in the nearby Ninigret Ponds.