Some people remember their first day of school, the first record album they purchased with their own money, their first kiss. I’m fuzzy on these things, but I do remember my first raw oyster.
It was a Malpeque from Prince Edward Island. It was 1994. My husband and a friend and I were at the Davis Street Fish Market in Evanston, Ill., and they gently dared me to slurp it, knowing I’d never done so before. Looking at the oyster, pearl-gray and scallop-shelled, dressed with brilliant red cocktail sauce, I felt something akin to the frisson that precedes a blind date, when great doses of doubt are tempered by irrepressible flashes of hope that you’ll fall in love. As the oyster’s tender fleshy brininess filled my mouth and caressed my palate, I did fall in love. And I’ve remained in a swooning state ever since.
That’s not to say my love affair with oysters hasn’t been fraught with risk, though perhaps that adds to the appeal. I watched in fascination as a tiny rogue crab wended its way across my plate of oysters, clams and mussels at Le Bar à Huîtres (The Oyster Bar) in Paris. My insides shuddered after an encounter with a nasty oyster in black bean sauce in Chicago’s Chinatown. Still, like an obsessed lover, I return to them again and again. I proudly wear a T-shirt bearing the logo of The Wicked Oyster, a restaurant on Cape Cod. I have a retro-looking, yellow-painted sign advertising Oysterettes oyster crackers hanging in my kitchen. And one of my online aliases is distinctly oyster-ish.
I’ve known since childhood that I got my taste for licorice from my mother and a weakness for steak cooked medium rare from my father, but it was only recently that I discovered the provenance of my passion for oysters (and bird-watching and classic country music): my maternal grandfather.
Grandpop was born near Denton, Md., in 1910, moved to Baltimore County in his teens and eventually became a pattern maker in metal shops for various companies in Baltimore. Although he returned to Caroline County for the occasional visit, he never moved back to stay. So my grandmother, a first-generation Slovak from Pittsburgh, learned to make the Eastern Shore foods he loved: fried cornmeal mush (what folks now know as polenta), kale and crab soup. I remember my grandfather as a great eater of all foods— he was prone to spouting the old chestnut, “You can call me anything, but don’t call me late for dinner”— but the stories my mother shared with me recently suggest that oysters held a special place in his heart.
Mom remembers family trips to the Eastern Shore to visit my grandparents’ friend Hiram Ruth, a waterman based in Grasonville. In the summer, my grandmother and Ruth’s wife would walk in the shallows and collect soft-shell crabs for dinner. But in the “R” months of autumn, Hiram Ruth would take my grandfather and my mother out on his boat. He’d head to a point in the river, cut the motor and lower two poles fitted with a pair of large rake-like tongs into the water. Minutes later, when he pulled out the tongs, they were full of the oysters he’d later send home in burlap bags with my grandparents.
Such burlap bags of oysters would again and again mark special occasions in my mother’s childhood. When family from Pennsylvania came to visit, Grandpop would go down to the corner of Pratt and Light streets (long before there was a Harborplace) and buy oysters from the watermen who unloaded their boats there. Then Grandma would make “padded oysters”— oysters dipped in egg and cracker meal before frying— or oyster fritters. Occasionally Grandma would bake an oyster version of potpie. But what my mother remembers best are the oysters my grandparents would set directly on the coals of their furnace. After a minute or two, Grandpop would pull the opened oysters from the glowing coals and serve them with the ketchup-and-horseradish cocktail sauce Grandma mixed together.
Like my grandfather, I love oysters all ways. I love their fresh brininess and how like no other shellfish they capture the essence of the sea. I love their raw silvery shimmer, and the way frying plumps them up and makes them sweet and salty, soft and crispy, all at the same time. And I love the way oysters from different locales taste distinctly different.
Some folks dread the early nightfall that comes with “R” months. But I embrace this time of year, which yields so many opportunities for oyster lovers to feast and frolic (like First Friday Oyster Nights at Hampden’s Hon Bar). As for the bivalve’s famous amorous properties? Well… let’s just say a lady never tells.