Eating In

Alive and undressed

The only way to eat oysters.

You may sing to your supper, exalt your soup of the evening, apostrophise your haggis, or even — as Neruda did without obvious irony — assure onions that they resemble Aphrodite’s breasts. But none of these eatables will respond: they are all dead.

If you want your nourishment to register your utterances, it must, at least, be alive, like the witchetty grubs, plump with wood-pulp in their guts, that Australian aboriginals chew to death, or the lice that Nenets pluck greedily from their own bodies, or the larvae that infest the honeycombs Ethiopians eat, or the cattle from whose wounds Masai squeeze fresh, refreshing blood.

In Western culture, the Bread of Life may answer your prayers, but only one merely material foodstuff is a potentially attentive addressee. Oysters are, uniquely in the West, the creatures that we eat without killing them in advance. They also perceive sounds, according to The Sense of Hearing in the Pacific Oyster, Magallana gigas by Mohcine Charifi et al. The walrus’s apologies were hypocritical but, in principle, at suitably low frequencies, audible.

When I wrote in praise of the live consumption of oysters, a shellfish-farmer upbraided me for spoiling her clients’ appetite. My purpose, however, was to recommend her product as a palæolithic treat.

It follows, I think, that one should enjoy oysters as nearly as possible in their natural state: “in their sweet juice, with the taste of the sea,” as Ausonius observed, and their briny, tangy, faintly fetid scent of seaweed.

Oysters have become an extreme instance of a common curse of cookery: garnishes, dressings and sauces, abused to supplant nature

I like to scrape and suck them straight from the shell and gulp them down after a slight squelch against the roof of my mouth.

Though the market no longer respects traditional seasons, oysters really are, by longstanding assent, best when there is an “r” in the month (See Seasonal Oyster Harvesting Recorded in a Late Archaic Period Shell Ring by Nicole R. Cannarozzi and Michal Kowalewski).

So, as bivalves return to tables in the northern hemisphere this month, I shall watch sadly as other diners torture them by squirting lemon juice, splashing ferocious tabasco, sprinkling the pepper and vinegar that Tiny Tim advocated, or spooning chopped onions, steeped in acidic liquids.

Chefs and canners, meanwhile, will traduce oysters by smoking or frying in batter or rolling in bacon or smothering in cheese, béchamel, cream or even whisky-flavoured butter.

The conclusion is clear. Most people who eat oysters do not really like them. Or they doubt their freshness, or cast them anachronistically in their historic role as poor men’s pabulum, once so abundant that they could be chopped as cheap protein or stuffed into steak-and-kidney puddings, to supply flavourless texture and bulk, like tofu for carnivores.

Oysters, therefore, have become an extreme instance of a common curse of cookery: garnishes, dressings and sauces, abused to supplant nature. Some examples are frankly abominable: gravies made with “browning agents”; messy blobs of ketchup or sweet preserves on meat; gooey aspic or ominously dun-coloured stock, insultingly called espagnole; slick veloutés and glazes that reflect the eye of the beholder in lazy versions of haute cuisine.

Because I like food, I eat it as it comes from the kitchen. Ingredients well blended in pot or pan — for texture and moisture as well as flavour — need little adjustment once they reach the table: at most, a squeeze of lemon or lime, a pinch of salt, a pat of butter, a splash or oil or vinegar, or a smear of mustard or mayonnaise. Juices that meat or fish exude are all the sauce they need, reduced with whatever alcohol suits them best.

There are, of course, people who prefer the sauces to the dishes they garnish.

When I watch fellow diners stain burgers or chips with ketchup or mayonnaise, or dab mint-infused vinegar on greasy cutlets, or mop the linings of sauce-boats with bits of bread, or gleefully coat uninteresting sausages with patent gravy or the shakings of bottles and scrapings of jars, or dip industrially-generated prawns in salsa, or sluice stodgy fishcakes or limp spring-rolls with the menacingly livid glow of chilli jam, or torture their oysters, I realise that, for distorted tastes or warped priorities, a dish can be merely a vehicle for some alien additive.

When the main constituents of a meal are inferior, shock treatment with sauces may enhance it. But this year, at least, let the oysters’ sacrifice not be in vain. May the new season’s specimens travel, sauceless and unmodified, from unpolluted seas to uncorrupted palates!

This article is taken from the August-September 2023 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print

Try five issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £10

Critic magazine cover