Lying icy-cool-naked in their clear, briny liquor are a half-dozen, topless, living, breathing, marine bivalve mollusks, shivering at a citrusy squirt of lemon – ready to pleasure an oyster lover. Lift one to your lips, suck it from its pearly shell and let it slide down your throat in all its sweet and salty splendor. Primordial bliss.
You’re perched on a stool at Rodney’s Oyster House in Toronto, the shiny, wood bar at Chez Delmo in Montreal or the big, U-shaped bar at Vancouver’s Joe Fortes Seafood & Chop House, and by the time you’ve sucked back a dozen just-out-of-bed Malpeques, Aspy Bays or Caraquets, you’ve gone through a sea of change.
You’ve slipped off your shoes and wiggled your toes. The oyster shuckers/bartenders are your new best friends. They involve and entertain you until everyone feels they’re part of one big, happy clambake. Everything that comes out of your mouth is witty; everything that goes in is delicious. Affable, like-minded strangers may offer you a Belon from France, a huge King from the Pacific or a tiny Olympia from Puget Sound. Go ahead, take it.
In the history of food, the oyster’s reputation as an aphrodisiac is legendary. In the days of the Roman Empire, orgies traditionally began with oysters. British kings gorged on them. British “ladies of the evening” swallowed them as a quick pick-me-up. Famous lovers downed oysters by the bucketsful to help ensure their “seaductive” pursuits: Casanova ate 50 a day in a bathtub-for-two with his mademoiselle-du-jour; James Bond, 007, in rejecting a platter of oysters, recognized their power. Giving his Bond girl the once-over in You Only Live Twice, he said, “Well, I don’t need these.”
Did you know then that the average oyster has about seven calories, as well as containing lots of organic salts and elements such as phosphorous, iodine and zinc (which, by the way, is said to increase testosterone)?
Rodney’s Oyster House is one of the best places in the country to eat ‘em raw. And they have takeout. Rodney’s oysters make the scene at the most chichi parties in town, as well as in the movie-set dressing rooms of Hollywood North’s A-list.
So, how do you shuck an oyster anyway? Very carefully. Better still, have someone do it for you –or put them right on the barbecue grill for a few minutes until they pop open.
Purists say that cooking an oyster is heresy – like baking a melon. But who could refuse angels on horseback, oysters Rockefeller or soulful oyster stew?
Aphrodisiac lore aside, the less foreplay you give an oyster, the better you’ll like the payoff. Just shuck, suck, and swallow.
Rodney’s Original Slap Jack Chowder
1 cup red onions, chopped
¼ cup fresh parsley, minced
2 tbsp butter
1 tbsp soy sauce
1 tsp dried thyme
½ tsp salt
1 bay leaf
dash of Tabasco to taste
1 pint freshly shucked oysters and liquid (about 25 large, choice Ice House oysters)
2 cups milk
½ cup light cream
2 cups shredded old-cheddar cheese
½ cup dry white wine
In a large pot, on low heat, cook the onions and parsley in butter till soft, not brown. Stir in soy sauce, thyme, salt, bay leaf and Tabasco. Add oysters and liquid. Cook over low heat, stirring gently for five minutes or less, until edges begin to curl. Pour in milk and cream. Heat through, but do not boil. Add cheese and stir till melted. Remove from heat. Stir in wine. Serve at once with fresh bread and the rest of wine. Serves four.
Sara Waxman, OOnt, is an award-winning restaurant critic, best-selling cookbook author, food and travel journalist and has eaten her way through much of the free world for four decades, while writing about it in books, newspapers and magazines. She is the Editor in Chief of DINE and Destinations magazine.