The American Series, Pt. VI — The Oyster Bar

“He was a bold man that first eat an oyster.” —Jonathan Swift

*   *   *

I found an article online, “The 10 Best Classic American Dishes and Where to Find Them.” Number 3 was New England clam chowder, and the place to get it was the Oyster Bar at Grand Central Station in New York. Which got me thinking about oyster bars.

The Walrus & the Carpenter

If I had unlimited disposable income and could eat anywhere I wanted, at least one night a week would be spent at an oyster bar. Writing about a vast underground oyster bar in his epic novel set in turn-of-the-20th-century New York, “Winter’s Tale,” author Mark Helprin reflects: “There is something about a roast oyster, a clean stinging taste of the blue sea, hotter than boiling oil, neatly packaged in its own bone-dry kiln, that makes even the most refined diners snort, sniffle and hum as they eat.” The oyster boy asks protagonist Peter Lake how many he wants:

“Four dozen,” said Peter Lake. “From the thyme-hickory fire.”
“To drink?” asked the oyster boy.
“No,” said Peter Lake. “To eat, boy. To drink, I’ll have a knocker of buttered rum.”

I would like to eat oysters at a place like that. Many years ago, we used to eat barbecued oysters at a tavern on the Russian River called the Blue Heron. On warm Sonoma summer afternoons, I would sit outside with my late Uncle Bob, drinking IPA and listening to a mediocre blues band, while our friend Bill-with-no-eyebrows shucked and ‘cued as fast as you could eat ’em.

As much as I like cooked oyster, the true miracle is the raw oyster. Like many of the world’s best foods, it’s a bit conceptually challenging. Consider eating the eggs of a prehistoric, spiny fish or the liver of an overstuffed goose. The raw oyster is, after all, still alive. As Woody Allen put it:

“I will not eat oysters. I want my food dead. Not sick, not wounded, dead.”

I relish all that the oyster haters hate — the bawdy visual vulgarity of the creature, the slippery mouthfeel and the briny wave of sea on the tongue. But then, I am a man who likes the blast of fermented air when you open a jar of kimchi, and who shaves dried and salted bottarga cod roe over his spaghetti with wild abandon.

Raw Carlsbad oysters at our house

While not distinctly an American institution, it is one that we have appropriated and perfected. And like the sushi bar and tempura bar, the oyster bar is also one I can emulate at home, if I’m entertaining friends who are of the oyster persuasion. (My wife is not a fan.) Oysters being an admittedly expensive luxury, you can throw an oyster bar dinner for half to a third of the cost of eating at a real oyster bar. You simply need to learn to shuck. (And yes, I do have a video from a previous post on how to do it.) And have a source for the freshest oysters. I could give you a fancy Asian-style sauce to dress them with, but I am of the persuasion that you can do no better than lemon and horseradish.

So my friends, whether you go out or stay in, eat oysters and be merry. For quotes, I leave you with Ernest Hemingway who, for all his swagger and misogyny, may have been a perfect oyster eating companion. And south of that, with a video of my daughters. One who likes oysters, one who does not. Can you tell which is which?

“As I ate the oysters with their strong taste of the sea and their faint metallic taste that the cold white wine washed away, leaving only the sea taste and the succulent texture, and as I drank their cold liquid from each shell and washed it down with the crisp taste of the wine, I lost the empty feeling and began to be happy and to make plans.” —Ernest Hemingway

19 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Mom
    Feb 05, 2013 @ 17:03:37

    Oh I love it! Will Immy try anything?
    What ever happened to Mark Helprin?


    • scolgin
      Feb 05, 2013 @ 17:22:27

      She will try pretty much anything. But all of ours did at that age.

      I googled Mark Helprin — he released a new novel in 2012, and lives on a 56-acre farm in Virginia. Cool.


  2. rachelocal
    Feb 05, 2013 @ 18:54:31

    I was just at Hemingway’s house this morning visiting the 45 cats that live there now. And that is one of my favorite food quotes of all time.


  3. Michelle
    Feb 06, 2013 @ 01:06:31

    Very nice piece. But, alas, unless they are tiny (and I do mean tiny), I just can’t take the raw oysters. I’ve tried. Really, I’ve tried. My father and brother drug me to every oyster bar in New Orleans and on the eastern seaboard. And I’ve managed to get them down at fancy French restaurants—my manners are good enough not to turn my nose up at Guy Savoy and Troisgros, despite my disappointment of seeing them on tasting menus! Cooked ones are ok though. Especially if small. I think this is a theme…


  4. glennis
    Feb 06, 2013 @ 04:55:04

    I’m the opposite of Michelle. I like raw oysters, but I’m not very fond of them cooked.

    I love oyster bars! The one at Grand Central Station is great, but I love going to Acme Oyster Bar in New Orleans, a cheap little dive in Apalachicola, and to Emmett Watson’s in Seattle, or with brown bread, butter and porter in London near the Borough Market!

    More good oyster reading is M.F. K Fisher’s “Consider the Oyster.” It’s included in the omnibus volume of her works, “The Art of Eating.”


    • scolgin
      Feb 06, 2013 @ 15:31:39

      Heard there’s a good one in Santa Monica. Although I prefer just hitting the farmer’s market and getting a dozen to take home. $10, can’t beat it. (That’s THREE oysters at most oyster bars.)


  5. pal-O
    Feb 08, 2013 @ 16:01:07

    In late February (this month) we are setting sail from just south of Tallahassee to Apalachicola on the good ship Rough God (named after the Van song) just for bags oysters fresh shucked and of course the fun of exploring the panhandle coastline and camping on a sailboat. In New Orleans I default to Felix’s for oysters as they seem a bit friendlier (and generous with the way they count to twelve) and less touristy than Acme. One day when we are sharing space and time once again I will tell you about the visit to New Orleans and the fracas that led to me being able to open my mouth just wide enough to accept a raw oyster–a bad time that led to a great number of oysters et joyously! Did you know that I was once an oyster shucker at a Gainesville restaurant named Aw Shucks back in the UF days when I first met Daniel?


    • scolgin
      Feb 08, 2013 @ 16:57:21

      I did not know that about you. But of course it does not surprise me. Anyone with the ability to take an oyster so seriously would most certainly be in my inner circle.


      • pal-O
        Feb 08, 2013 @ 18:40:39

        I’ll upload some pix after we land back at the marina in early March. I am already tasting those saltsilky oysters sliding down my gullet while digging my toes in the deserted snowwhitesandy beaches of the panhandle brushed with sundazzled turquoise waves washed with creamy foam crests. Spring should be close enough by then to keep the cold in the more northern climes of Alabama.

      • scolgin
        Feb 08, 2013 @ 18:44:29

        When we were in Puerto Vallarta last October, there were guys diving for oysters right off our beach. I pulled up a couple sea urchins… but I think next October I may look for some oysters too.

  6. pal-O
    Feb 08, 2013 @ 20:29:06

    That sounds like it would be a blast digging your own oysters. There is a place on the way to the beach here on the east coast that has a canal where I’ve gone before to dig nice tasty clams with my toes & then when I felt a little bed start swimming down to pull them up. They’re really tasty on the grill after they have nestled in a cooler of canal water filled with cornmeal bed for a couple of days…


  7. russianmartini
    Nov 05, 2013 @ 19:57:17

    That’s awesome. Don’t you wish everyone could be so open-minded about food?!


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