One Ingredient: Oysters

Image by Adam Detour

I wish I could say that I grew up eating oysters. I didn’t. I was 5 when I tried my first specimen, a Wellfleet, on the Cape. My father handed me one fresh off the grill that had just popped open, and showed me how to slurp it down. It wasn’t as big a hit as, for example, my first bite of ice cream, which I didn’t spit out. This, I’m pretty sure I spat out. A couple of decades later, though, my attitude has changed: Oysters are now one of my favorite foods.

My oyster awakening was due in large part to the unparalleled prose of M.F.K. Fisher, whose 1941 treatise on the history, preparation, consumption and overall appreciation of oysters, Consider the Oyster, pushed me to reassess my relationship with these bivalves. I put the book down with the impression that in order to be not only a well-rounded gastronome but a true New Englander, I needed to start eating oysters again, and I needed to love them. It wasn’t that hard.

I was in my late teens or early 20s, working a summer job as a line cook, and my palate had matured considerably since my first encounter with oysters. Before long I was eating them every possible way: fried, broiled, grilled, roasted, even raw. Fisher notes in the opening to her book that how a person prefers their oysters is an important badge of identity and, in some cases, nationalism. Try serving French people, as my family did, grilled oysters in the summer. A concept as foreign and ominous to them as peanut butter! But with the exception of a slight skepticism of enormous Gulf oysters in the South, I’m not picky. I have my preferences, but I’ll happily eat any variety, any time of year, any style.

It’s often repeated that oysters are best enjoyed during months ending in “R,” making this a particularly auspicious time of year to try out a few recipes at home. The following collection includes recipes based on cherished dishes from Cape Cod as well as a few new ideas that cover a wide spectrum of preparations and flavor pairings. While it’s true that oysters are not traditionally at the top of the home cook’s weekly shopping list, they’re much less intimidating than they seem. And covered in bubbling pesto, miso-nori butter, cranberry-sumac granita, bobbing in a Portuguese stew or fried and stuffed in a taco, they might even please a picky 5-year-old.

Traditionalists point to chilled glasses of Chablis or other similar white wines as the only sensible accompaniments to oysters, but attitudes are changing. These diverse recipes offer opportunities for beverage pairings as varied as a cold IPA, a glass of sake, a funky naturally fermented wine, a gin cocktail, even kombucha! Don’t be afraid to experiment.

This recipe appeared in the Fall 2016 issue.