The Oyster and I

Unlike some, I don’t remember my first oyster as epiphanic. That’s no reflection on the oyster, which I’m certain was good, plump and fresh from the Gulf, arguably among the best in the world, but I ate it on my first trip to Jackson, which was a dizzying affair for a 7-year-old boy from a sawmill village in north Mississippi.

After the thrill of seeing the frothy Rez from the Trace, riding in a highway patrol cruiser (my last time in the front seat of one) and ogling at the Capitol dome, eating oysters at the Mayflower seemed pedestrian. The bouffants of the waitresses made far more of an impression than the shellfish, and when ours yelled at some idiot from Atlanta who ordered a poached egg, I tried to die three times. Out of sheer terror, I left her all the money I had–two quarters–because she glared at me when I asked for an extra straw.

Oysters enjoy a sex life that makes human sexuality totally lame, switching sexes according to a variety of environmental factors. If you’re a young oyster (a spat), one season ‘s Uncle Louie might be the next’s Aunt Louise. Not only that, but oysters reproduce by spewing their sperm and eggs into the water around them in an impregnating haze, the human equivalent of desperate yet sincere sex with someone on the other side of the Jacuzzi.

Any encouraging words of prolific reproduction and growth among oysters strike a chord of extreme indifference among those people who rate the oyster as a food on par with nasal mucus, but those of us who hold the mollusk in the highest esteem find it heartening. Oysters were once so plentiful in American coastal waters that no meal that aspired to distinction was complete without them, but since the first decades of the last century the mollusk has been in catastrophic decline and the prices have escalated accordingly. Oysters at the Mayflower in 1967 cost a dime apiece, a dollar a dozen.

Eating a raw oyster is like stealing a kiss from the ocean: a wet, slightly salty, totally sensuous experience unbridled by any sort of fussy preparation. I’m firmly convinced that anyone who doesn’t enjoy oysters is a bad kisser, and I have centuries of documentation to back me up in this opinion. Oysters have enjoyed a reputation as an aphrodisiac for millennia. Now that I am well past the salad stage of life and forging steadily past dessert, I firmly intend to keep oysters a mainstay between courses. If God is willing, I shall have them with my cordial.

I still like oysters with a dab of tart, horseradish-y cocktail sauce, but I also enjoy a lighter sauce that’s a bit more in tune with the sublime texture of the animal as it comes–quivering in its nakedness–to my lips.

Mignonette Sauce

Combine 2/3 cup wine vinegar, a small, finely-minced shallot, 2 tablespoons olive oil, and a tablespoon each freshly-ground black pepper and minced parsley.  Bottle, refrigerate, and shake well before dribbling over freshly-shucked oysters.

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