The Art of Eating Oysters

The joys of discovering a renowned delicacy in the comfort of your home

Photos: Zachary Schwartz

If, for some reason, I found myself stranded on a tropical island with nothing more than a knife, a tent, a net, an iPod, a match, and nothing more than a lemon tree for shade, I would consider myself a lucky man. With survival as a legitimate excuse, I could finally indulge the rabid id of my palette — to eat nothing but oysters forever.

But since I’m no castaway, I instead visit Oyster Island almost every weekend. On Saturday mornings, I stop at the West Side Market in Cleveland, one of the last remaining big public market spaces in the U.S., and head straight toward Kate’s Fish stand. The vendors always begin to giggle as I approach. Once, I asked them why. “You’re one of the only guys that come here to get raw oysters to eat,” they said. “And you’re the youngest by forty years.”

Consider the oyster. Each one tells a story. Its flavor is imbued by type, region, season, currents, the surrounding minerals and nutrients — its “merroir,” in oyster jargon. Its taste and aftertaste constitute a satisfying beginning, middle, and end. As you tip the shell into your mouth, the seawater rushes in, setting the scene. Enter the viscera from stage left. The various flavors arrange into a sparkling kick-dance number. The show elegantly concludes with the aftertaste — a tangy or tart or sweet finish — leaving a pleasant buzz upon your palate. Standing ovation.

There’s a definite art to shucking an oyster. It requires confidence, practice, and a few flesh wounds that serve as dues.

Childhood is often colored by an interminable lust for things we cannot have: a candy bar, a new car, a crush. I loved oysters from the first time I tasted them, but growing up, I had, at best, no more than a few a year. Oysters were reserved for vacations to New York, and even then, my parents would order a dozen and split them four ways between my dad, my mom, me, and my sister. I understood my family’s reticence — a single oyster in a high-end restaurant can cost up to four dollars, meaning a dozen is kissing fifty.

As soon as the waiter set down the coruscant, ice-decked plate of oysters, I would already begin to dread their inevitable disappearance. I’d finish my share quickly, then eye the remaining half-shells with the longing of a house dog. If I were lucky, my mom would sneak me one under the table, much to the great consternation of my dad.

Eventually I left Ohio to attend college in New York City. Once away from home, I began to crave the flavors of my youth and started cooking for myself. First I made ramen and bacon and eggs, then upgraded to the dishes my Taiwanese mother cooked: beef noodle soup, three cups chicken, soy sauce eggs. But oysters remained a green light in the distance.

After graduating college I moved back to Cleveland, got a job, and began making substantial money for the first time in my life. I started shopping at the West Side Market, where one day I stopped at Kate’s Fish stand. I pointed through the glass at the oysters. In their natural form, they were grimy, rough, blue-black, and crustaceous. I asked for a bag. “Are you planning to shuck them yourself?” she asked. “You’re going to need an oyster knife.”

After returning home that night, I carefully laid out my instruments in the kitchen: the towel, the bowl, the knife. I wrapped my hand with the towel and gripped the oyster. I stabbed the knife into the hinge of the shell and dug deep. The shell exploded and I yelped and jumped back. Bits of shell scattered around the kitchen like shrapnel.

There’s a definite art to shucking an oyster. It requires confidence, practice, and a few flesh wounds paid as dues. Like a sketch artist maximizing his lines or a surgeon mapping her incisions, all you need to prepare an oyster is three expert strokes: Pry the shell open, slide the knife through it, then slice the oyster loose from its accutor muscle. My initial attempts were uneasy, but that night I learned how to work them open and arrange them on ice.

After about an hour, I stepped back to admire my work. Twelve glistening oysters lay before me. Although I was in my apartment in Cleveland, they could have been from the fanciest restaurant in New York. They felt out of place, as if the jewels from a heist had been dumped right there on my kitchen table. If you looked from the sky, there might have been a glow through the window.

In the months and years that have passed since, I’ve worked hard to refine my craft, and have become much better at shucking. Kate’s Fish stocks different oysters throughout the seasons, and I learned the difference between all the types: Pirate Coves, Rocky Nook Selects, Old Coves, Blue Point. Some were sweet, some were salty, some were buttery. My current favorites are Cotuit Bays, which I prefer for both their rich taste and their brininess.

I love watching my friends’ eyes widen with the realization that they’ve discovered something wonderful, a seemingly inaccessible experience, unlocked with a bit of can-do and know-how.

Every Saturday night, I purchase two dozen oysters from Kate’s Fish, shuck and prepare them, and cuddle up on the couch to watch boxing, another pastime I share mostly with old-timers. My friends are amused, interested, and even concerned about my oyster consumption — after watching me eat 24 oysters in a row, my girlfriend told me I was going to turn into one. She may have been onto something: On the days following a binge, I’ve noticed that my sweat smells like the sea, my cheeks grow soft and fleshy, and my skin turns unusually pink.

Anyone in my orbit eventually ends up trying oysters. Most people will either say that they like oysters, but they’re expensive, or that they’re afraid to try them. To silence the doubters, I’ll bring a fresh bag to their house, shuck them in the kitchen, and then we’ll head outside to slurp them in the sun. I love watching my friends’ eyes widen with the realization that they’ve discovered something wonderful, a seemingly inaccessible experience, unlocked with a bit of can-do and know-how. For those of us in our early-to-mid-twenties, when money, freedom, and curiosity can finally come together for the first time, this is one of the best parts, we learn, of being an adult: having the resources and will to discover new things.

As a society, I think we often romanticize childhood as a time of unfettered pleasure. But as children, we don’t yet have the liberty to live as we choose. After 18 long years, we’re finally set free, and if fortunate, can also acquire a bit of cash to spend. We can do many things with that money: withhold it, renouncing our dreams of particular luxuries, or waste it, buying scores of oysters at overpriced restaurants. Or alternatively, we can learn to do things ourselves. You don’t have to be rich to eat like a king — you just have to be resourceful.

From the balcony of Tony Montana’s mansion in Scarface, a blimp is seen passing by. “The World Is Yours,” it reads. From the shores of Oyster Island, a blimp is also sighted. “The World Is Your Oyster,” it reads. Back on the shore, the flare is stashed, the fire put out. No rescue is needed here. The blimp operator peers through the dark and sees a message, etched into the sand of the beach. “Oysters Are Our World,” it says.

As adults, we have the freedom to choose our own paradise. And if we’re fortunate enough to discover a passion like the one I have for oysters, it may be closer than we imagined.

This story is part of The Art Of, an ongoing series that supplies you with instructions for living.

Taiwanese-American writer from Cleveland, Ohio. Words in Rolling Stone, Playboy, Vice, and Countere Magazine.

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