Home on the Half Shell What working at an oyster house has taught this writer

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Six months after I moved to Baltimore, I walked into Thames Street Oyster House with its dark wainscoting, minimalist paintings of ships and seashells, old-school white tablecloths, blue-striped napkins and a tight-squeeze floor plan, where you can’t help but eavesdrop just a little on your neighboring tables. Why did I feel at home?

A quick scan of the menu and I knew. Lobster roll. Butter, not mayo. Fried whole-belly clam roll. Quahog clam chowder. The New England roadside- stand staples I spent summers in Maine eating at picnic tables under big umbrellas, sand and salt still lingering on my skin from the brisk Atlantic —
it was here. My heart hurt a little, longing for a time when home was still that concrete place. I was lucky to be sitting next to my older and only sister, though, who was reliving those same days. We manically agreed to split whatever spoils we would order that evening.

There were oysters. Oh, the oysters. Our server walked us through the à la carte menu, instructing us to use a navy blue golf pencil to make our selections from the 13 varieties, all from different regions. I loved oysters. I’d been eating them since I was a kid, and once a year, we’d all go out for a fancy dinner in New York City. My dad would order the seafood tower for the table, and from where I sat as a small child, it looked so tall. I relished the tiny forks we got to use. Those nights left an imprint.

That night, I grabbed a business card on the way out. I’ve worked in restaurants since I was 14 (what else is an aspiring food writer to do), and I knew I wanted in. Based on the extensive knowledge and impeccable skill of my server that night, I wondered if I was even qualified. Still I had some experience, and besides, I had New England in my blood. I sent my resume, but I never heard back.

A few years later, I tried again. And I got it. The place I’d connected with so early in my Baltimore chapter, that reminded me of home at a time when all I knew was new, would let me be part of their everyday. I learned that owner Candace Beattie went to college in Boston and her business partner, Chef Eric Houseknecht, attended culinary school in Rhode Island. I observed the level of care they took designing the menu, sourcing their food. That at-home-comfort-nostalgia feeling? They worked incredibly hard to cultivate that, from memories they were recreating for themselves.

And then, I learned about the oysters. At Thames, they’re sourced from Virginia all the way up to Maine, then to Canada, and finally over to the West Coast. Small, medium, large. Sweet, salty, briny. Plump, delicate, meaty. Creamy, crisp, lingering. Fruity, vegetal, metallic.

My friend and colleague, Matt, lent me a book that taught me oysters are the only food in the world that taste just like where they are from — what they grow amidst. They are a product of their environment, and when we try them, we get to live where they did for just a few seconds at a time. Maybe that’s why people are obsessed. It’s an adventure to a new place or a return to the ocean you swam in every summer as a kid.

I’ve never seen a range of reactions with any other food like what I’ve witnessed with oysters. Some people have that confidence — they know what they like, what they want and how this night will go. Some people need help. Maybe they have only ever ordered the daily oyster special. I talk them through the different flavor profiles and what to expect from different regions. We figure it out together. I get to be part of their process, and I’ve got to say, it’s rewarding to check in on them and hear their reviews.

And then, my favorite: the first-timers. They came in because they heard we have great food, but there’s “oyster” in the name of the restaurant, so they just have to try a few while they’re here. Maybe it’s their 20th wedding anniversary and an oyster fanatic has finally badgered a squeamish spouse to try one. Or it’s a group of students pinching pennies to have a proper night out, and oysters are part of the production. A parent wants their kid to try one, just to see her face while she eats it.

And so it goes … they start with the lemon wedge at the top of their oyster platter, move clockwise and enjoy the selections from top to bottom of the oyster card. Cocktail, horseradish and mignonette in the center, of course. This is a restaurant, and one way of looking at it is that we’re serving food to turn a profit. I might be naive, but I think it’s more than that. We’re giving people an escape, maybe to a new place or maybe to that place that feels like home.

Photos by David Stuck

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