By Bruce Meyer | Photography Brad Conrad
I had found a very good dry martini at the bar and decided to percolate around the periphery of the crowd at the fundraising cocktail party. The novelist, Austin Clarke, sauntered up beside me in his elegant double-breasted Savile Row suit and Order of Canada, whispering in my ear, “They have oysters over there.”
For those who have never approached an oyster bar, there are several things to know. The oyster should be shucked by a professional. Shucking involves inserting an oyster knife between the upper and lower shell, and with a flick of the wrist the top of the bivalve comes away cleanly with a snap. To make sure the oyster is fresh always follow a simple rule: no snap, no slurp.
To open an oyster is to condemn it to a death that will take place inside of you, for oysters are always eaten alive. A tight oyster is a good thing. A loser oyster is…well, the next thing to self-inflicted poisoning. The 18th century writer, Jonathan Swift remarked that, “The man who first ate an oyster was very brave indeed.” Swift was aware that oysters are bottom feeders. Whatever is unwanted on the top of the sea finds its way to an oyster. The old story about not eating oysters in a month that has no R in it (May, June, July, and August) is just good food-handling sense. Fresh oysters must be kept cold, and if well-served are presented on a bed of ice.
Once the shell is open, eating an oyster becomes personal. There is a little shot of brine with each one, and from there the variations in condiments are endless. Clarke proceeded to show me his version of how to dress the oyster’s glistening body. “One does not want to offend the oyster,” he stated in his diplomatic English accent as he added a drop of Tabasco and two drops of lemon. With that he threw back his head with a matador’s flair, and down it went. The oyster must slide down the back of the throat. To chew it, to even permit it to touch the teeth in passing is a no-no. Oysters are the oral sex of foods.
A person does not taste an oyster as much as one remembers it with fondness after it has disappeared into the centre of one’s soul. Oysters are a poetic experience, over the top as foods go, but then again one does not get oysters any day of the week.
For this reason, oysters are associated with four star restaurants, with a cuisine of elegance, white tablecloths, decadence and formal splendour. When Jules Alciatore invented the dish named for the richest man in America and served it in 1899 at Antoine’s in New Orleans, he knew that Oysters Rockefeller would transform the working class shell fish into an up-market fancy.
I asked the shucker if he had ever found any pearls. He shook his head. “Wrong kind. You need an Indian Ocean oyster.” The ones Clarke and I had swallowed, washed down with our dry martinis, were from Nova Scotia. Pearls, alas, do not grow wild in Canadian waters. But even dreaming of finding a pearl is part of the oyster mythology. Since Roman times, oysters have been considered an aphrodisiac, though there is no scientific evidence to support the suggestion. Oysters, according to most sources, are the ideal food for vegans because the creatures have no central nervous system, which I find strange. The animal inside the shell knows when it is in danger and keeps its lid shut tight.
There is magic in an oyster. Every oyster eater dreams of finding a pearl, a symbol of how nature rises above its own pain to create a gift. A string of them goes beautifully with a black dress. My grandfather gave my grandmother a string of real pearls on their wedding night as a token of his undying love. My grandmother told me of the test for whether pears are real or not, something jewellers dismiss as pure legend, though the test is part of the mythology of oysters. A real pearl, when run across a person’s front teeth, feels gritty. Imagine the sand of the sea. The tiny bead of calcium carbonate that will become something rare and beautiful is created when an irritant enters the oyster. Rather than suffer, the creature envelops the intrusion in a round, almost mystical sphere of iridescence that grows into an object of splendour.
To remove a string of pearls from the neck of one’s lover is to feel the heat of her body absorbed by the baubles. That heat remains long after the pearls have been set aside, and long after the mythic effects of the oyster have done their work.