“A loaf of bread,” the Walrus said,
“Is what we chiefly need:
Pepper and vinegar besides are very good indeed —
Now if you’re ready, Oysters, dear,
We can begin to feed!”
We had no idea we were also buying a farm-front estate.
That’s a bona fide farm, aquaculture-style.
Acres and acres of some of the best in the world reveal themselves twice a day in that amazing zone known as “our back yard.”
That’s me, gently tiptoe-ing through the two-lips (aka, bivalves.)
Hahaha… get it? Bivalves… two-lips…
Sorry. I’m just in this for the shuckles.
Why, many of you will ask, do apparently rational people willingly slurp back completely recognizable, unadorned and unaltered (except for having been chilled and treated to a spare drop of lemon juice to tone down the salt hit), raw, living critters?
Rowan Jacobsen’s amazingly engaging*, informative, and delightful little tome, A Geography of Oysters, lays out at least two compelling reasons:
1. In a way unique among all edibles, raw oysters taste like the sea.
Landlocked in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan and pining for the briny ozone air of your favorite coastal town and the sound of eagles and waves breaking on the beach? Hit a local oyster bar, knock back half a dozen of these puppies, and save yourself several hundred dollars in air fare, ’cause you’re there.
2. More than any other food, the flavor of particular oysters, like the terroir of wine, is derived from the unique intersection of the bottom composition, river inlets, salinity, and the thousand other variables that make one place different from another.
This is why oysters are named for the place they come from, rather than for their species. Their “somewhereness” links palate to place.
Raw Fanny Bay oysters (of the species Crassostrea gigas, or Pacific oysters) have a smooth, clean, light cucumber, medium salt Fanny Bay-ness to them that is now permanently bolted to our definition of “home.”
Think of them as yogi vegetarians who live on filtered algae and plankton, using the daily tides to strengthen their core muscles by clamping resolutely shut during low tides to preserve their sweet life juices and to guard themselves against beach predators.
Between that and the regular intense natural tanning sessions, they grow stout, shucker-friendly shells that also extend their shelf life.
… and therefore how important a protective shucking glove is.
Our original “pre-Fanny Bay residents” oyster knife—a Dexter-Russell 3″ shucker—has been a reliable workhorse. We bought it because it’s apparently used in a lot of commercial kitchens and was inexpensive. And it works just fine.
However, as we’re now into bigger league and more regular shucking, it was time to get serious. The Cook’s Illustrated top-rated oyster knife is the R Murphy “New Haven,” a style involving a slight bend at the end which makes a lot of difference when detaching the shell-attaching muscle thingy.
We bought one and love the well-crafted, light, and comfortable simplicity of it. Plus, the upturned tip makes finding your way into and through the hinge way easier.
Oyster shucking is rarely a single participant sport around here, so we also decided to try the OXO Good Grips Oyster Knife. It’s also a “New Haven” style, a “recommended with reservations” option with Cooks, but an Amazon Best Seller with a 4.5 star rating based on over 120 reviews.
While at around $8, it’s about half the price of the R Murphy. However, they’re both under $20 and neither one will break the bank.
In the end, the best oyster knife is the one you like the most, and we both prefer the R Murphy, so whoever shows up second at the shucking table gets the OXO.
One note on the un-named wooden knife with the metal guard in the background of the photo above: forget about it. It’s too blunt to effectively wedge into the hinge so you can lever it open, and the guard only teases you into thinking it’s protecting you from a potential oyster edge poke, when in fact the best protection is a great knife that allows you to stay in control.
*Okay, just how engaging can a book on the geography of oysters be?
Witness Rowan Jacobsen, from a random paragraph in the chapter entitled “How to Grow an Oyster”:
“As mammals, we have trouble with the concept of jettisoning useful tools as we develop. For us, it’s all progress from infancy to adulthood–language, walking, winking, sex. It’s hard to comprehend a creature that voluntarily ditches vision and locomotion. We place a premium on them, but evolution decided such trifles were useless to oysters, and made the cuts. It’s a bit like being a Hindu mystic. Your life path involves paring down to the bare essentials, making do with less. You find a nice spot, settle into the lotus posture, and do nothing but eat, breathe, and periodically blow off a third of your body mass in one titanic ejaculation.”
I read the whole thing cover to cover in two days, laughing out loud in several places. If you’ve got an oyster lover on a gift list, or if you want to invite conversation while sitting alone reading at a raw bar, or if you’re just a curious foodie and would enjoy a breezy romp through a new subject, this offering comes highly recommended. An IACP Cookbook Award finalist, and a James Beard Foundation Book Award winner, it’s currently at the top of my personal non-fiction hit parade.