For as long as I’ve held an opinion on the matter, I’ve disliked oysters.
My first experience with them was as a main ingredient in a casserole. It was a dish of unappetizing, crusty brown…something…dotted by pale, rounded, rubbery oblongs that smelled of smoke and tasted of oily tinned fish.
I did not have a second experience.
Until last Sunday.
At which point, I thoroughly revised my opinion.
Last week, we had house-guests: two young friends drove out from Alabama (!) to visit. As they had never been to Seattle before, we squired them about, taking them to see the sights, one of which is always Pike Place Market.
I love the Market. There’s always something new and interesting to experience, be it Morrison Boomer busking in the stairwell, a vendor who makes wonderful canvas and leather tool and knife rolls, a fresh crop of exotic fungi down at Sosio’s, or the Corinthian capitals on the support columns (they were there all the time; I just never saw them before), so taking fresh visitors to the Market is always near the top of our tour-guide list. It’s a win-win.
The four of us spent hours down there, wandering the stalls, people watching, and soaking up the atmosphere until, as breakfast had been light, we decided to stop in for a nosh at The Athenian. Insofar as our guests were only two years old when Sleepless in Seattle came out, we didn’t dwell on The Athenian’s cinematic history and concentrated instead on the character of the place (an admixture made of equal parts taciturn regular, middle-class local, and cruise-ship tourist) and the view of the Olympics (which, from our window booth, was astounding; we had a crystal-clear, 90°F day, and the sailboats were plentiful on the Sound).
On a total whim, I decided to order an appetizer. Compounding whims, I selected a half-dozen oysters on the half shell. I really don’t know why I chose them…perhaps it was the heat, or maybe the residual ambience of the dish shared by Rob Reiner and Tom Hanks…but choose them I did.
I do occasionally try foods I haven’t liked before. Brie, for example. I try it every couple of years, just to see if it still tastes like old gym socks. In this regard (and probably only in this regard) I am an eternal optimist. I keep hoping that, some day, my palate will have changed and I will suddenly “get” why everyone else is always so gaga over brie. Not oysters, though; they never got a second chance with me, which makes my order all the more perplexing.
Food likes/dislikes are intensely personal. Some foods just feel “wrong” in the mouth. This is one of the main reasons I hear from folks who don’t like sushi. The texture of raw fish is, to them, ickifying, and they cannot abide it. For me, it’s part of the pleasure. The buttery softness of ahi or the yolky crunch of tobiko add so much to the whole experience. Even so, I imagined that a raw oyster would be a bit of a stretch for me. There’s a lot of flobbling going on in those half-shells, and despite their being whole, they have no discernible anatomy. Frankly, they look like parts you normally get rid of.
Smell is another big factor in food acceptance/rejection. Again, I’m good with this up to a point. Seaweed, nori, clams, mussels…they all smell strongly of the shore. I grew up near a salt water marsh and bay, so these flavors—properly moderated—are nostalgic. When I get to sea urchin, though, the taste is such a concentrated blast of tidal muck that it pegs my meter. I expected the oysters to be similarly mucky, so I prepared myself.
They arrived, glistening and pale, nestling in their nacre white half shells, all on a bed of crushed ice. The womenfolk took one look and demurred, so the young man and I took up our silly little seafood forks and tucked in.
I opted to try the first one unadorned, to taste it on its own, without a lemony tang or the bite of hot sauce to confuse my senses. The shell was both rough and delicate, like thin stonework, and when I took a sniff, I smelled not the tide, but the sea, clean and crisp. Tipping it back, the mollusk slid off easily, and the texture, while indeed a bit flobbly, was a good deal more coherent than I expected. The taste was delicate, as was the briny liquor, with hints of sea and spray accenting the subtle flavors of stone and copper.
It was a revelation.
Believe me, I’ll be enjoying more of these ocean gems quite soon.