Thanksgiving is the perfect time to crack open a few dozen Maine oysters. Our icy autumn waters are the ideal environment for these strange, salty, slurpy creatures. I love the idea of presenting guests with beautiful, just-shucked oysters while everyone gathers in the kitchen and drinks a glass of bubbly. The rest of the meal is going to consist of heavy, fat-laden, rich foods. Oysters are such a clean and perfect protein, pleasing to experience, and sumptuous. And at only about $1 a piece here in Maine, they are a cheap treat that feels so festive. And there is a certain flair factor in doing it yourself. You can even say to your friends, “Awe, shucks” which shows that you are both humble and clever. That joke is free, folks. Tip your waitress. Except, I never have done it, ever. I decided I had to practice.
The first time I ate oysters was at Malcolm’s parents’ place on the Gulf Coast of Florida. His dad bought a mesh bag the size of a third grader from a dilapidated shack on the side of the road in a place called Alligator Point. I was trying very hard to appear nonplussed but I wanted to faint and then barf. I wanted a cheeseburger. I wanted my mother. She would have written a note. But it was imperative to seem adventurous, the only qualification for entrance into the clan. A strong liver and love of small dogs is also helpful. Malcolm’s sea captain father with a handsome gray beard, big belly and glittering eyes, popped open the first ugly alive animal and handed it to me. I was unhappy, but ate it anyway. It tasted like Florida: primordial. I didn’t enjoy my first four dozen. After that, it’s been okay. I am glad that they exist, and like to have a few on occasion, but I still shudder to think of the pile of shells we left on the table at Posey’s, a Southern seafood purveyor in Panacea.
On Saturday, I went to Jess’s Market, our local fish market, and picked up three varieties: Aphrodite, from Cushing, Pemaquid, from Damariscotta, and North Haven island oysters. I also got a bottle of Prosecco, because drinking always helps. I set up a workspace with all of the necessary tools: an oyster knife, which has a thin, sharp, and slightly curved blade, a few kitchen towels, and wooden board. I whisked up a quick mignonette with red wine vinegar and finely chopped shallots. I peeled and grated fresh, local horseradish, and blended some in the Vitamix on super high with ice to make a burning snow, then mixed some into ketchup for a cocktail sauce. I took a deep breath, turned up The Clash and, began.
With a brush and cold water I scrubbed each oyster clean, or close to it. I let them stay submerged in the sink in very cold water while I prepared the accompaniments and mixed Maine sea salt with just enough water to moisten it into a paste, which I used as a bed for each shucked oyster. You can also set them out on crushed ice or Kosher salt. Here’s how to do the deed:
On the surface of a cutting board, wrap an oyster, flat side up, in a folded kitchen towel, holding it in my left (non-dominant) hand. With some practice, you can hold the oyster in your hand, but for now, let’s work on not stabbing yourself.
Find the hinge by holding the pointed end toward you, and slipping your knife into the fissure. Wiggle the knife in, then twist the blade to pry up the top shell.
Next, you have to separate the meat from the muscle. Run the knife around the top shell and pop. It should separate with the oyster intact; the curve of the blade on the oyster knife should prevent you from cutting into the oyster itself.
Then, run your knife under the oyster to free it from the muscle and loosen it from the bottom half of the shell.
And that’s it. Sort of. Mostly. It takes a bit of courage, but once I got the hang of it, I opened them pretty quickly. I do really want to stress the potential for impaling your hand or cutting yourself very badly. They sell all sort of gloves for this job. Safety first! Blood in the oysters is a great way to spoil a party. It’s a very satisfying trick, if you do it carefully. I felt like I have mastered an essential coastal skill. Another Maine badge for my “From Away” sash. And were they ever delicious.
The Aphrodites, which I had never had before, are true to their name. Slender, with an opalescent inside and tender meat. Very innocuous. A good starter oyster for the timid. Pemaquids from Damariscotta are lovely, briny, exactly what a New England oyster should be. The North Haven ones were a little more intimidating to handle. Larger with a smoother shell tinged green. I was wary of these but they were great, definitely more of a mouthful but not in any way not fantastic. These would be very good to batter and fry for po boys. As far as the condiments went, the cocktail sauce was way overpowering. I like it with warm water oysters and saltine crackers but it was unnecessary here. The horseradish ice, an idea inspired by Eventide in Portland, was lovely, and added another interesting textural, temperature element. Mignonette is classic and a perfect counterpoint to the flavor of the sea. Again, though, these were all so nice they didn’t nothing except a small squeeze of lemon, if anything.
All in all, it was a fun, swashbuckling project for a weekend afternoon. I think if I had everything else prepared to host Thanksgiving I might give it a go with a houseful of family and friends. It would also be cool to show up as a guest with your own knife and a glint in your eye. Do use caution and of course get the freshest seafood you can, as always.