I was 12 years old when I discovered that raw oysters were the best food on earth and not, as I had assumed, the most disgusting. After a day spent bodysurfing the big breakers out beyond the sandbar at New Smyrna Beach, Florida, my family ducked, sunburned and salt-encrusted, into Stormy’s — a real bar. While my mother sidled away toward the safety of some mozzarella sticks, and my younger brothers stared at me with “You’re going to put what in your mouth?” faces, I climbed onto a barstool next to my father, lifted to my mouth an oyster on the half-shell, slurped it in, gave a few halfhearted chews, and left childhood behind.
I matched my dad, oyster for oyster, through a couple of dozen that day. The first had been a dare, no question, and the second was to prove that the first wasn’t a fluke, but I ate the third because there was something vital about the experience that I didn’t quite understand but wanted to experience again, and I ate the fourth one because I couldn’t stop.
Dad and I killed a lot of oysters back then. They were a dime apiece during happy hour at Stormy’s. They weren’t even especially good oysters, I know now — likely bought on the cheap from some fetid Gulf Coast backwater — but they were my initiation into another way of eating. In an America where we rarely ate recognizable creatures, oysters were the real deal, unadorned and live. This food didn’t come to you prepped, cooked, and otherwise altered to make it as pleasing and unthreatening as possible. You had to leave your familiar surroundings, cross the cultural bridge, and risk the wild world.
Then there was the taste. Oysters taste like the sea. This fundamental truth has been pointed out enough times that it is easy to forget how extraordinary it is. Oysters taste like the sea. No other food does. Not lobsters, not saltwater fish, not scallops or clams or even kelp. Beef tastes meaty, milk tastes creamy, but the comparison for oysters is not a taste or another food but always a place. And a place — the seacoast – for which many of us have romantic associations. From oysters I learned that what’s important about good food is not just what it gives you, but where it can take you.
The next step in my oyster odyssey was easy. South of New Smyrna Beach is Canaveral National Seashore, 220 square miles of wilderness surrounding the Kennedy Space Center. The Atlantic flows through Ponce Inlet and into Mosquito Lagoon, an immense estuary protected by Canaveral’s mass. I used to canoe there a lot, amid miles of flat green water and egrets and palm trees and marsh — and the occasional column of fire from a NASA launch. And it was there that I noticed the “rocks” sticking just above the water surface at low tide. Florida has no rocks — it’s sand, sand, sand — so these were worth investigating. They were beds of oysters, piled on top of each other, revealed at low tide and hidden again at high. I might as well have come across Spanish doubloons.
Soon I was bringing hammers and a plastic bucket, and returning in my canoe with more oysters than I could eat. Some I would whack off with a hammer and open on the spot, returning the empty shells to the lagoon. This was a revelation. No raw bar required! Those oysters took me out of the suburbs and into a relationship unchanged since prehistory. Was I a Florida eighth-grader in an Ocean Pacific T-shirt or a Timucuan Indian boy cruising the coast? You couldn’t have told from my meal.
When I think back on those oysters, I’m first and foremost pleased that I’m not dead. Those were risky oysters. Vibrio vulnificus, a parasite that infects oysters and is responsible for a few [human] deaths a year, lives only in warm water. Stick to cold-water northern oysters and your risk is virtually nonexistent. I’ll bet the water in my lagoon was 80 degrees Fahrenheit.
I didn’t harvest another oyster myself for 25 years. That one was in Maine, about as far from my warm Florida oysters as I could get. On the frigid shore of the Damariscotta River, I pulled up a thick-shelled oyster, held it awkwardly against my thigh, pried it open with a knife, cut its adductor muscle, and dumped it into my mouth. The meat was cool, briny, and brimming with life. I felt full of well-being and deeply connected to the earth — as well I should have. A mile up the river inlet, a 2,000-year-old shell midden bore testament that humans had been connecting to the earth in just this spot, in just this way, for a long, long time.
My Damariscotta oyster belonged to the exact same species — Eastern (Crassostrea virginica) — as the Mosquito Lagoon oyster I’d eaten a quarter-century earlier in Florida, but it couldn’t have tasted more different. Where the Florida oyster tasted a bit muddy and soft, the Maine oyster was fresh, firm, and briny as all get-out. It tasted like, well, Maine. And it drove home a point that is central to this book: More than any other food, oysters taste like the place they come from. Oysters are creatures of bays and tidal pools and river inlets, of places where marine and terrestrial communities collide. While they are creatures of the sea, they draw their uniqueness from the land and how it affects their home waters. They have a somewhereness to them, like great wines, and in a mass-produced society where most foods don’t seem to be from anywhere, this makes them special.
You can’t look at a grape and tell that it’s from northern Chile. You can’t taste a supermarket rib-eye and say, “Ah, yes, the grasslands of Wyoming.” But with an oyster, you can sometimes pinpoint its home simply by looking at it. With a little practice, you can often tell by tasting it. Think of an oyster as a lens, its concave shell focusing everything that is unique about a particular body of water into a morsel of flesh. That’s why not only do Florida oysters and Maine oysters taste different, but oysters in one Maine bay taste different from oysters in the next.
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