I have two half-brothers who live on the East Coast, and when I was a kid, if they came home for the holidays, they would bring a Styrofoam cooler of oysters. My father would get out his knife and shucking glove, and lean against the kitchen counter, flicking grit and shells into the sink as he went, and they would all stand around, eating and sighing, making the noises that people make when they eat oysters.
I don’t know how old I was that night, but I think I must have been about 6. I stood next to my father while he shucked, and he leaned down and gave me an oyster, a fat one, an enormous one, amoeba-like, dripping with brine. I have no memory of eating it. I must have forgotten on purpose. But I do know that I ate it—approximately, if nearly choking can be considered eating—and that it took me 25 years to eat another.
Twenty-five years. Twenty-five years! When I get freaked out about something, I get freaked out. Like, a-quarter-of-a-century-long-freak-out freaked out. The look of an oyster, the texture, the choking thing: I was all right with the idea of never eating a second.
But around this time last year, we had a cook at Delancey who wanted to play around with oysters, and so Brandon went to the Sunday market and bought some Kumamotos from Taylor Shellfish. At lunch, the cook made a mignonette, and then he shucked three oysters and put them on a plate. Then he dared me. I was tempted to punch him in the face. I was not pleased. I did what I do when I am presented with something that scares the crap out of me. I picked up an oyster, stared at it and felt as if I was going to cry.
I made everyone look away, and then I ate it. Only one, and it was tiny, but I ate it. I chewed and everything. I didn’t die. And when I swallowed, the flavor rang around my mouth the way the ringing of a bell ricochets inside a cathedral, now here, now there, and it did that for maybe 10 seconds, now here, now there, before it dissipated. It tasted like seawater and melon and wet rocks. I didn’t even hate it. I almost liked it.
I’m not going to tell you that I am a reformed person or that I pop oysters like jelly beans. I’m still working on that. Last spring, the first time I was faced with a dozen oysters, a whole dozen to myself, I felt like ducking under the table and making a run for it. I was forced to resort to something like Lamaze breathing techniques, a full-body aaaah-hooooooooo, to get me from oyster to oyster. Sometimes, I still do. But it’s getting easier. And it’s worth it to me because there is no other flavor like it, anywhere. I’m glad I learned that, that I let myself learn it.
A couple of weeks ago, when we had friends in town, I took them to our neighborhood oyster bar, a place called The Walrus and the Carpenter. We ate oysters from the Effingham Inlet, on the west coast of Vancouver Island. Ben had never had them before, and when he tasted his first, he yelled, “Oh, my God!” and I’m almost certain, almost, that he would have done that even if he hadn’t been drinking a cocktail called the Mustache Ride. It was that kind of oyster.
I met a man on a plane once, and we got to talking about food. This guy had a Texas accent and the stature of a former football player, but his mother was a tiny Italian woman, he told me, holding his hands about a foot apart to show me how tall she was. We talked about Seattle restaurants, about where he took his wife for their wedding anniversary, about our dogs, about his kids. He has a son in his early 20s, and this son is away at college, but sometimes when they’re together, he told me, they go out for oysters. They’ll suck down four or five dozen, he said, grinning, and they’ll drink some beers, just the two of them, and a couple of hours will go by, and it’s just great, he said. And then he grinned even wider, thinking about it, and he sort of hopped around in his seat, and his face got pink, and he started to giggle. The man giggled.
I get it now. And I’m glad for that.