The second last time I had oysters was on a recent trip to Florida. It was a real oyster shack complete with hanging napkin dispensers, metal buckets for serving and the fastest shucker I have ever seen. You order them by the pound and when you are done with each shell you toss them in the trough at the edge of the bar. They are served with soda crackers, cocktail sauce and drawn butter. You can have them either steamed or raw, the latter not being the popular choice for Southerners. There is a big disclaimer on the menu highlighting the potential dangers of eating them raw and that the establishment is not responsible should you fall ill. I was confused. We eat them raw up in the North. And by the way, what’s with the crackers, where’s the crushed ice, fresh horseradish and Tabasco? Yes, they are cheaper but so was the experience.
So I decided to pay a visit to my favourite oyster joint, Big Daddy’s Crab Shack and Oyster Bar on King Street, to relive how we do it. It was happy hour and that week there was a Mardi Gras celebration. At “a buck a shuck” we got down to business. Twenty five oysters later, including a Kumomoto from Asia that was farmed in the West, I was happy.
Now, clearly an oyster is an oyster but what exactly are these molluscs all about? We eat them but know so little about them. I called upon Katie, a veteran server and shucker for some insight. She begins with the basics. The correct and most enjoyable way to eat an oyster is to chew then swallow. Most people just swallow and do not even taste it. She argues that this technique is, “simply a waste of money”. Unless you are in Orlando or it’s happy hour, these little treats are expensive. The Kumomoto was $3.50 for one. The steep pricing of oysters is why they are almost always presented in a thoughtful way i.e. on crushed ice or sea salt and why they are served with fancy sauces. No one would appreciate paying $18 for half a dozen and they bring them to you in a bucket.
She shucked another one for me and began pointing out the layers and the muscle of the oyster. The muscle is the centre and is what holds it together. Detaching it from one side of the shell with the knife is what kills it. Yes, it is alive right up until it is served.
They are either male or female but can change sex more than once in their life span. Some oysters die inside of their shell before they are opened and according to Katie, the smell is extremely rancid. She says that a bad oyster can only be likened to, “the smell of a big, nasty fart” and that your nose could find one even at the bottom of the pile. To help keep prevent them from dying, they should be lying cup side down in their own sea water. North American oysters all have one side (the half shell) that is more concave then the other. It is their bed and they need the salt water to stay alive.
I have to admit that part of the fun of eating oysters is dressing them. At Big Daddy’s they serve them with fresh lemon and horseradish, spiced infused vodka and a carousel of six different sauces ranging from gentle to very spicy. I mix and match, trying different combinations and feel proud when I make a good one. This time and for the first time, I tried one plain. It was the one Katie shucked for me and she made sure not to drain a drop of the water. It was like accidently swallowing salt water while swimming in the ocean. I will stick with the condiments.