“He was a bold man that first ate an oyster,” wrote satirist Jonathan Swift. Those of us who love the briny bivalve can agree. I mean, if J. Alfred Prufrock had trouble deciding to bite something as luscious as the downy peach, what maniac was brave enough to coax open and swallow the first oyster? I can’t remember my first a raw oyster, but it must have been after I learned to enjoy them cooked.
My late father roasted oysters casino every Christmas Eve when we gathered with another family, the Willises, before heading out to the late mass. Dad and his friend Dr. Pebble made a royal mess on the kitchen counter-tops as they cracked open the crumbling shells with rounded knives. (Pebble Willis’ given name was Eugene, but he was a chip-off-the-old-block of his father, Stonewall, hence, Pebble.) Each oyster was a palm-sized mystery as the fathers cupped them eye-level, looking for telltale bumps, hinges and grooves. Sometimes they slurped one here and there, but mostly they lined up the open shells on cookie sheets covered with a layer of gray rock salt (to catch the drips).
One year, Dr. Pebble missed the oyster and put a knife right through his left hand between his thumb and his forefinger. As the mothers rushed him off to the emergency room, everyone offered prayers of gratitude that it wasn’t the other hand — he was a right-handed surgeon. The dads wore gloves for shucking in subsequent years.
Once the trays were filled with fresh oysters, Dad topped each one with “The Butters” — a mixture of butter, chopped green pepper, chopped shallots, parsley and lemon. Each buttered oyster was finished with a garnish of “The Bacons” — a piece of half-cooked bacon. Finally the men slid the heavy trays under a hot broiler for a minute or two, watching carefully so that the gray flesh barely curled at the edges. The rare burned batch was a real bummer.
Everyone loved the oysters. We kids crowded around the oven, waiting for them to come out. We plucked the burning shells straight from the pan, with the knowledge that we would sear our fingertips. We pulled bite after buttery, bacon-y bite from tiny, fancy forks that my mom and Dr. Pebble’s wife, Miss Casey, had arranged in a high-low pattern the counter next to a stack of bone china plates.
For all the work that Dad and Dr. Pebble put into those oysters, they didn’t last long. We could eat dozens of them in five minutes — or less. The shells never made it to a china plate, we held them long enough to drop the shells into a pile in the sink.
Surely Dad’s recipe served, for me, as an introduction to adventurous oyster eating. When I married my husband in 1995, he was in Navy flight training in Corpus Christi, Texas. There was a little dive in downtown Corpus called the Water Street Oyster House. For a quarter you could buy a dozen oysters, provided you also bought the side pitcher of beer. Socializing over icy platters of shellfish was a happy way to get to know my new husband. We went on to have four bouncing babies in five years, so maybe the wives’ tale about oysters is true — maybe they are good for your health because they build iron in the blood. (What? Were you thinking of a different wives’ tale?)
Our Navy years took us to New Orleans, and I was very thankful during our time there that I was a seasoned oyster-eater. New Orleaneans love their oysters and have them Bienville style (with chopped mushrooms, shrimp, aromatics and bread crumbs), Rockefeller (with spinach and parmesan cheese), and my favorite, charbroiled (made famous by Drago’s restaurant, where the oysters are slathered in butter, garlic, cheese and parsley then roasted over a roaring fire). Likewise, I enjoyed platters of the raw, real deal with champagne and my gracious, southern friends who welcomed me.
We also lived (for Navy orders) in Maine, where the oysters are served with New England sensibility, unfussed. Up in Damariscotta, the oyster mongers have even created an “oyster trail” where consumers can bop from hatchery to hatchery and bar to bar, noting the nuances of salinity based upon where the oysters were harvested.
Here in Maryland, my favorite oysters are no longer served — my dad and Dr. Pebble, and even Miss Casey have passed away. Gone, for me, is the anticipation, the crowded kitchen chaos, and yes, the hand slicing. But I have Dad’s recipe, and I feel the adults who nurtured my childhood traditions urging me on.
I knew them. If there was anything, they wanted for me, anything for me to learn, it was that I might celebrate the mystery and joy of living. The wonder that something that tastes as vast as seven oceans, has the salt of just one tear, and can force a jewel from a grain of sand — they would want me to find something powerful there. It is a lesson to keep learning, even after the teacher is gone. If I follow Dad’s recipe to the letter, the oysters will still never taste the same. My dice isn’t as fine. I do the lazy bacon from the cardboard box. But I’m trying my best. I want my kids to do what they think they can’t do. To be bold, and not afraid, and just eat the oyster.
Hamish Osborne’s Oysters Casino
2 sticks of softened (not melted) butter
1/3 cup chopped green pepper
1/3 cup chopped shallot
1/3 cup chopped fresh parsley leaves
Juice of 1 lemon
Salt and pepper
Line raw oysters on the half shell on a cookie sheet lined with rock salt
Top raw oysters with butter and a piece of partially cooked bacon
Broil carefully and watch to see that the oyster has become slightly firm and the edges curl. Be careful not to burn the bacon.
Consume a few for yourself before you let anyone else know they are ready.