Not only do the flavors of oysters vary widely, so do the rituals that attend their consumption. Some people treat them as delivery devices for Tabasco. Some lay their slippery prizes on saltines. Some dunk them in Bloody Marys or pints of stout. The Fujian Chinese fold them into starchy omelettes laced with chilies and pork fat. Some chefs gussy up half shells with minced jalapeño, coriander, and a cool tomato gelée. Some prefer their oysters poached, grilled, fried, stewed, smoked, boiled, pickled, or, God help us all, smothered in bread crumbs and butter and cheese. Some presume oysters to be a ticket to bed, and don’t care how they’re prepared, just as long as they get some. But a purist takes his oysters straight, no chaser. (You wouldn’t taste-test an espresso by dousing it with soy milk, would you?) I don’t necessarily eat the whole dozen naked—a good mignonette can be a thing of beauty—but my first oyster is always unadorned, a visceral shot of the shore.
Humans have used oysters throughout history—as fertilizer, as ballast, as material for roads and landfill, and as food. It was the ancient Romans who first learned to farm them, but wild oysters were harvested long before that. Prehistoric peoples left mounds of discarded shells, called middens, as evidence of their ostreaphilia. Archaeologists have found shell heaps in such far-flung locations as Brazil, Scotland, and Australia.
In America, the oyster’s heyday came in the 19th century, when every seaside town was littered with sidewalk oyster carts. The advent of the railroad took them far inland as well. (In Paris, the best oyster joints were always clustered around the terminus of the train lines from Brittany.) Nourishing and plentiful, oysters became a staple food of American dockworkers, rail workers, and landed gentry alike. But overfishing and pollution nearly wiped out the domestic oyster. By 1930 the edible population in New York Harbor—which once numbered in the billions—had vanished. Scarcity led to price hikes. Like lobsters, another former workingman’s grub, fresh oysters became a rich man’s delicacy. From the 1940’s through the 1980’s, the vast majority of oysters consumed in America came from a can.
Since then, of course, the half shell has seen a revival, spurred by a proliferation of skilled cultivators on the one hand and serious-minded oyster bars on the other. “We are entering an oyster renaissance in North America,” Rowan Jacobsen declares in his lively primer A Geography of Oysters.
Among ostreaphiles—the most parochial of eaters—a spirited rivalry divides North Americans down the middle. West Coasters call Eastern oysters boring—so subtly flavored that all you taste is seawater. East Coasters find Pacific oysters cloyingly fruity. “If I wanted a melon, I’d eat one,” scoffs Jay Shaffer, owner of New York’s Shaffer City oyster bar. “I don’t want distractions—give me the sea.”
My own tastes lie with Shaffer’s, but I’ll admit that the West Coast has the more developed oyster culture. In the coastal communities of Oregon and Washington State, I’ve seen 12-year-old boys with their own oyster knives. Monogrammed. On the shores of Puget Sound, roadside stands sell 50-pound bags of oysters for families to shuck around a picnic table. What the lobster is to New England, the oyster is to the Pacific Northwest.
I will also admit that sampling the smoky-sweet, silver-dollar-size Olympias at Elliott’s Oyster House, in Seattle, made me rethink my East Coast allegiances and seriously consider moving to Seattle. Man those Olys were good.
I encountered even more revelations overseas. At a small café on the Dalmatian Coast of Croatia, I lucked upon the elusive Ostrea edulis, a.k.a. the Mali Ston, a strong-flavored specimen purportedly favored by Emperor Franz Josef. Mali Ston itself is a fortified medieval harbor town northwest of Dubrovnik, fronting a small protected bay where underground springs and freshwater rivers create an ideal feeding ground for oysters.