Let us royster with the oyster — in the shorter days and moister,
That are brought by brown September, with its roguish final R
That ditty from the late 1890s reminds us that months with an R are the months to belly up to the oyster bar. Unfortunately, there are few oyster houses left in America. In 1900, the per capita American consumption of oysters was about 600 per year, an amount that I, an avowed oyster lover, sadly come nowhere near consuming.
Two centuries ago, America was known for its oyster houses or oysters cellars, where everyone from leading politicians to scallywags would converge for Saddle-Rocks or Blue Points. One of the most famous of oyster cellars in the 1820s was Downing’s Oyster House at 5 Broad St. in Manhattan, operated by a free African-American, Thomas Downing. Union Oyster House in Boston, where Daniel Webster would down 100 at one sitting, is the oldest continuously operating restaurant in America. Today, there are about 400 oyster houses left — but, rather than strictly oyster houses, most are seaford restaurants.
An oyster is a delicate creature and needs respectful handling, starting when it’s in the water. Oyster beds have been under rigorous inspection for purity of waters since the early 20th century. Most oysters live and grow in estuaries. Their habitat, the flow of water and the temperature of the water affect their taste. Oysters are filter feeders and require this flow of water. That is why oysters are sold according to their beds, for example, Blue Points from the town of the same name on Great South Bay near Patchoque on the southern shore of Long Island in New York, Chincoteagues from the Virginia shore, Wellfleets from Cape Cod.
There are several hundred species of oysters but not all are tasty or commercially viable. The American oyster (Crassostrea virginica) is more abundant than the European oyster (Crassostrea angulata or Ostrea edulis).
How to open oysters, for all their historic popularity, is known by few today. Oysters are reluctant bivalves whose adductor muscles hold shut shells with such suction that there seems no way to pry them open. Some boorish people use hammers to smash them open, but this is no way to treat a delicacy.
One needs to remove an oyster from its home with the same aplomb that a pickpocket removes a wallet. The mollusk should not even be conscious of the violation of its armor. The rule of thumb is that an oyster lover will remove the mollusk so it is hardly conscious of its being lifted from his lodging until, in the words of one oyster lover, “He feels the teeth of the piscivorous gourmet tickling him to death.”
Oyster knives are as multifarious as the oysters themselves. You can find Chesapeake Stabbers, Galveston knives, Boston Stabbers, the Frenchman, Crack Knives or — my favorite — my beloved New Haven, popular in all of New England. Because there are so few shuckers today, one can hardly find these oyster knives. If you do, say at a flea market, buy and keep it; cherish it.
I open oysters with the hinge method for which the New Haven is best suited. In other words, I find the black mass between the upper and lower shells where they hinge together and with some force wedge the tip of the knife in and, with a careful push and wiggle, pop the adductor muscles and quickly jerk all around to open. A squirt of lemon and a slide down the throat and there you are.
Next week: More on choosing and eating oysters
Photo by Barry Donahue
Zester Daily contributor Clifford A. Wright won the James Beard / KitchenAid Cookbook of the Year Award and the James Beard Award for the Best Writing on Food in 2000 for “A Mediterranean Feast.” His latest book is “Hot & Cheesy” (Wiley) about cooking with cheese.