George Merrill - March 2009
Reflections on the Half Shell
“It was a brave man who first ate an oyster,” wrote Jonathan Swift. In my opinion, he wasn’t a brave man at all. He was a privileged one. I have a deep fondness for oysters. It’s a family affair.
The paternal side of my family had been engaged in the oyster trade around New York Harbor and Staten Island for at least 250 years. I remember burlap bags filled with fresh oysters sitting in the garage. They smelled like dampened leather. Yet it wasn’t until I was an adult that I first ate one.
Oysters have always seemed exotic to me, as though they came from another world. In one sense they have. Oysters, as a species, have survived for 200,000,000 years. They look about the same now as they did then.
Every New Year’s Day, for the last 35 years, I have prepared Oysters Rockefeller for family and friends. Even those who normally think of oysters as ‘yucky’ will allow that as a Rockefeller, an oyster is not only a class act, but an epicurean delight. I believe it’s the bacon and spice pariesienne that’s used that lend this dish its unique taste. Who doesn’t like bacon?
I prepare them as though performing an ancient rite, carefully shucking each oyster by hand, adding ingredients scrupulously and arranging each shell purposefully on a tray. Presenting the oysters always promotes spirited conversation. Fresh oysters, dressed with select ingredients and steaming expectantly in the rock salt beds on which they have been baked, their entire being laid bare for all the world to see, oysters Rockefeller are, indeed, a sight to behold. Add some champagne and you’re sure you’ve died and gone to heaven.
I came to Maryland 35 years ago. I ate my first raw oysters at Faidley’s at the Lexington Market in Baltimore. They were marvelous.
I was a regular there for years and it occurred to me one day that I had seen few women at the raw bar. Are raw oysters only a guy thing?
There’s an old myth that Casanova ate 50 raw oysters each morning as he sat in the tub with his mistress. There is no indication that she ate any. It may be because oysters are not universally liked and can inspire in people both revulsion and admiration. Such properties are a sure sign of interesting character. Oysters have character.
At a time when gender issues are so controversial in America, studying the oyster’s habits is instructive. I’ve read that oysters can change their gender as many as four times a year. Some find that scandalous. At the least it would make for tricky courtships. How could an amorous oyster be sure, when making advances, who it is ultimately that he or she might be dealing with?
Oysters have a way of simplifying complicated relationships. If there is a preponderance of females, some females simply elect to become males in order to level the playing field. The problem for oysters is that they can’t travel around to meet other oysters. It’s either the girl or the boy next door or the singles scene. Necessity, the mother of invention, illustrates how flexibility in gender matters can serve everyone’s interest far better than rigidity.
For oysters it’s pragmatism and not sexual licence that initiates extraordinary transformations. The problem of a gender gap among oysters is unheard of, and mutual respect and cooperation are the watchwords. Unlike their human cousins who struggle with gender issues, oysters settle theirs without rancor or violence.
I’ve noticed from advertising that Americans have a fetish for cleanliness and success. We buy Handi-Wipes by the dozens and struggle to make winners of our children. I believe these preoccupations are driven less by concerns for good hygiene and substantive accomplishments than by neurotic fears of dirt and not becoming a star. Oysters could care less and have survived for millions of years. Oysters have no need to make anything of themselves and couldn’t care one whit about staying clean.
A week or so after its birth, an oyster floats around seeking footing somewhere. He (I shall elect ‘he’ for discussion, assuming he maintains a steady identity) finds some stable object and affixes to it. He will never go anywhere. He simply remains there to be a stick-in-the-mud for the rest of his life.
An oyster also lies around and drinks all day. He speaks to no one. If he should open his mouth at all, it’s only to have another drink. The oyster may be the only critter above the surface or below it that inflicts the greatest harm to himself and to others when he stops drinking.
Oysters house themselves in the most disreputable-looking hovels: misshapen, gnarled, uneven and rough shells where just to touch one might inflict a nasty cut. They’re covered with muck and filth, resident barnacles live on their shells with little red worms burrowing here and there – enough to put anyone off. A cover, however, is not the book.
Their messy exterior belies not only an oyster’s interior living space but also its smooth and succulent resident. Within, the supple oyster lives in a miniature palace, yes, a salon, elegantly glazed and satin smooth. The pearl-like patina of its walls is accented with occasional splashes of blue. The interior forms a seamless sanctuary where the oyster rests safely ensconced as cozily as though it were royalty reclining between pillows of silk.
More so in Asia than on the Chesapeake, an occasional oyster even keeps a pearl or two locked up for safe keeping. High-end living can be found in the most modest circumstances. I, for one, find old, weathered ramshackle houses far classier than the palatial but antiseptic McMansion.
My admiration for the oyster goes far beyond its ability to feed or charm me. It’s more about the thrill of holding in my hand a creature that predates written history, a player in the primal life that inhabited the earth as life itself was beginning to sort itself out. They were there in the early days as a part of the dawning of life.
If oysters had eyes to see and tongues to speak they could tell us more about how this marvel we call creation began its long trek. They would be our eye witnesses to how life struggled to survive on land, to take wings and fly, to develop legs to walk, thumbs to hold, and minds to remember the past and to imagine a future. They might have some inkling why human beings are so restless and must roam from one end of the planet to the other, and, if that were not enough, shoot for the moon.
If oysters could only speak, what marvelous tales they would tell.