If nothing else, New York City is divine at destroying itself. I could harp on Penn Station and Ebbets Field—architectural monuments martyred to the gods of progress—but I’m too hairy to be mistaken for Jane Jacobs. Besides, I’m more concerned with comestibles.Thus, this’ll be an elegy for the oyster.
More than 150 years ago, New York’s waterways were choked with oyster beds, which provided sustenance for city-dwellers of every stripe: High-class swells could sup on oysters Rockefeller at Delmonico’s, while the proletariat dined on bivalves by the pail. Shuck ’em, slurp ’em, chuck ’em—oysters seemed as inexhaustible as bison. Oh, the 19th-century’s sweet naiveté.
By the early 1900s, the bivalve beds had collapsed like the Mets come September. Oysters were overfished and stricken by diseases from foreign species.The estuaries were open sewers. Scarce oysters became splurges, trotted out alongside champagne to aid Casanovas in their quests to disrobe a paramour.
“They’re potent aphrodisiacs,” my friend Matt insisted, twisting his mustache.
“That’s because they look like a giant clitoris,” added his girlfriend, Emily.
Now, I’ve probably seen more clitorises than I’ve eaten oysters, a ratio that’s not as impressive as it sounds. And I don’t believe that those sea-dwellers serve as oceanic Spanish fly. For a fraction of the cost, a flask of Old Grandad and a 24-ounce Coors rev my engine into fifth gear. “You just need to come to a North Carolina oyster roast,” Matt said. “That’ll change your tune.”
I slept well that night. I ate well that morning: Southern-style biscuits, sage sausage and eggs. That afternoon, I was well confused. I assumed an oyster roast entailed cooking bivalves in the sand. “That’s a clambake,” Matt said. Instead, an oyster roast involves a wood-fired, flat-topped stove. Oysters are scattered atop the surface, then topped with water-soaked burlap sacks. They’ll steam, then stop, then steam again—the oysters open and release their briny broth.
“Oysters are served!” shouted the chef, a tireless, heat-reddened gent wearing overalls. He shoveled a heap of shells onto a plywood table, where round-nosed oyster knives were scattered along with juice-sluiced rags and several tangy mignonettes. I grabbed a knife and an oyster, as warm as a sauna stone, and made a few hesitant stabs at the stony creature—a killer unable to make the mortal cut.
“It’s already dead,” Matt said, showing me how to unleash the meat within. Holding the bivalve curved side down, I inserted a knife into its hinge and twisted. The shells parted, revealing a grey oyster as long and plump as my pinkie. I dipped it into a tangerine-tinged sauce and chewed the flesh: smooth, creamy and fresh, it was the ocean by way of heaven.
“What do you think?” Matt asked. “Feeling sexier already,” I said, grabbing a second oyster and calling for my girlfriend.