Edible Dramas: “Like Kissing the Sea… On the Lips”

Sexy Penn Cove oysters chill on ice at Hank's Oyster Bar in Alexandria, Va.Rowan Jacobsen considers Penn Cove oysters (left) to be the sexiest shellfish he’s ever eaten. They come from Washington state and perennially win the annual Most Beautiful Oyster Contest at Elliott’s Oyster House at Pier 56 in Seattle. “They … get bountiful and succulent, and they have this gleam to them as they sit in their shells,” he says. “They just look incredibly healthy and vivacious.”

Jacobsen is the author of A Geography of Oysters: The Connoisseur’s Guide to Oyster Eating in North America. He believes oysters taste like the places they come from, and he describes the places and tastes in simple but seductive language: salty, mineral, mossy, smoky or metallic. Terroir just isn’t a suitable term for this particularity of place, especially since the places are submerged beneath seawater. Jacobsen calls it the oyster’s “somewhereness.”

Eating raw oysters is “like kissing the sea… on the lips,” according to Jacobsen. “With oysters, there are no intermediaries. It’s a very direct experience. That food is exactly the same as it was when it was pulled out of the ocean,” he says. “It’s come to you on a plate somewhere and nobody’s done anything to manipulate that food. In fact, the food was alive until just moments before.”

You can listen to Jacobsen’s oyster reveries in an NPR interview with Melissa Block. Be warned: they recorded the interview at Hank’s Oyster Bar in Alexandria, Va., where they could slurp platters full of freshly shucked and iced shellfish without restraint. Don’t even think about listening if you are as land-locked or oyster-bereft as I am at the moment.

Rowan Jacobsen’s evocative language reminds me of Ms. Modigliani’s talent for describing what she had for dinner with such animation that you feel famished and titillated at the same time. It isn’t just food — it’s an edible drama. My thanks to métrogirl, my favorite Flickr photographer, for giving this culinary/gustatory/visual/&linguistic art form a name. Take a look at her sumptuous photos in edible dramas Paris to see what I mean.

From A Geography of Oysters

A raw oyster was not designed for our pleasure. Appreciating it is more like catching a glimpse of a fox in the woods: The experience lasts only a moment but leaves us in a fleeting state of grace. Oysters are not easy or obvious, but few foods so exquisitely balance sweet, salty, savory, and mineral. Few foods so reward our efforts.”

Rowan Jacobsen

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4 Responses to Edible Dramas: “Like Kissing the Sea… On the Lips”

  1. tomrobertstennessee says:

    I have been involuntarily thinking about raw oysters throughout the day after reading the blindflaneur blog about them. As a kid, I remember seeing my grandmother in Kansas downing raw oysters with a cocktail sauce laced with horseradish. The event had an air of grown-up pleasure forbidden to children, like cocktails. In adulthood, I have always regarded eating raw oysters as a pleasure akin to risk-taking, like playing blackjack in Las Vegas, or flirting with a jaw-dropping pretty lady. And whenever I am about to eat one, I am always reminded of the old saw, “The first man to eat an oyster was a brave man indeed.”

  2. Mark Willis says:

    Yes, Tom, I have a similar memory from childhood. There were two rites of passage associated with Thanksgiving. The first was downing a raw oyster when my father offered it before making the oyster dressing. What a thrill! The second came a year or two later when my father plucked the gizzard out of the roasting pan, sliced it, and offered me half. I knew then that I’d become a man in his generous esteem. Now I’m not supposed to eat gizzards anymore, but maybe half of one is what I need.

  3. ms modigliani says:

    I adore oysters: on the half shell with a squeeze of lemon, or slathered with horseradish and a catsup cocktail sauce…whatever! I also love Oysters Rockefeller with its combination of oysters, parsley,and parmesan cheese, topped with a rich sauce of butter, herbs and breadcrumbs, The world was my oyster,sitting with you on the second floor balcony of a New Orleans restaurant down by the river. I often return to those memories of oysters and shrimp po-boys, to hanging out at Jackson Square and to passing time at the coffee shop at the end of our block on Royal Street.
    Maybe it’s almost time to go back.

  4. Mark Willis says:

    Mmm…grilled oysters dusted with Parmesan cheese, a basket of spicy crayfish, a frosted pitcher of beer, and a balcony table so you’re eye-level with the levy when the Natchez whistle blows…

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