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Oysters Rock-ya-fella

My father, Roald Dahl, was a great lover of oysters. “Treats!” he would announce when he returned from The Harrods Food Hall after a trip to London. Unlike these days, when oysters are plentiful and available, when I was a child growing up in England, the rare oyster was encountered only in the most prestigious French restaurants or at the magnificent Food Halls of Harrods. So despite their slimy and unattractive appearance, the rarity and expense of oysters made them a treat, even to a young girl like me.

I will never forget the evening Dad brought home a bushel of oysters and invited his sisters, Asta, Else and Alf, to share in the rare feast out at our rambling farmhouse in the Chiltern Hills in southwest England. My cozy Norwegian aunts often would drive from their homes in neighboring villages and, after much food and laughter, leave well-fed and “watered.” At the end of an evening, my sisters, brother and parents would walk the aunts out to their cars. We would wave goodbye as their little cars sped down our country lane and then as always, my father would announce, “There they go, sloshed as usual!”

When we were young, my father and his sisters would speak in Norwegian if the conversation became inappropriate. But on the night of the oyster dinner, as the topic turned to the mollusk’s aphrodisiacal power, they continued in English. I was about 9 years old, and I was riveted.

That evening, I learned that according to folklore, Casanova ate several raw oysters to prepare himself for an evening’s encounter in his lover’s bedchamber. Don Juan, they said, practiced the same regimen. (My father, later known to have a penchant for beautiful women, probably did too.)

Scientists agree that the oyster boosts a man’s sex drive, but argue that it is the high level of zinc that raises the testosterone in the body — not any physical resemblance to a woman’s “lips.” I think it is probably a little bit of both.

Oyster farm on Orcas IslandOysters on Orcas

Oysters are notably less rare where I spend much of my adulthood — on Orcas Island in Washington. Just outside of our small town is a beautiful little cove, and at low tide, I often admired the carefully placed sticks, strings hanging between them, with the shells growing from the strings. It never looked like much of an oyster farm, and therefore I did not succumb to the temptation of harvesting any for myself.

That is, until I stumbled upon a secret treasure trove.

We were at the cove, also known as Crescent Beach. My husband was foraging for driftwood and, finding myself uninterested in his quest, I wandered out in my Wellington boots, beyond the dry sand toward some unusual shadows far out. Due to the particularly low tide, I was able to explore further out than usual. As I got closer, I began to make out the mystery object: a secret oyster bed, exposed by the very low tide.

Rows and rows of wire nets were filled with oysters of all different sizes. Some had spilled out and were growing outside their wire homes, clean and beautiful. I felt as if I had stumbled onto Aphrodite’s jewelry box.

I have since learned that these wire-netting sacks protect against predators, such as crabs and birds. The oysters thrive for about two years in these nets, growing from seed to adult without tending.

A single oyster filters 60 to 80 gallons of water a day. Oysters have recently been planted in the Chesapeake Bay to clean up its notoriously polluted water. They are a fascinating and powerful stimulant to our environment — and as I learned the other night, after my husband and I feasted on the fresh, ice cold, salty delicacies, they do the same for a marriage!

Lucy Dahl is an author and screenwriter in Los Angeles. Her other articles about food, memory and family can be found here.

Photos, from top:
Oysters for sale in a French market. Credit: Norbert Bieberstein
Low tide exposed the vast oyster farm off Orcas Island. Credit: Lucy Dahl