*I’m on this week’s episode of Food(ography) on The Cooking Channel. It airs several times throughout the week (March 20-31) and I’d love for you to check it out. See schedule for showtimes.
*Pinch me! Ruth Reichl wrote about the blog post you’re about to read.
Oysters invite prosaic use of metaphor the way Robert Pattinson melts the knees of 13 year old girls across the globe. The locked mollusk is both hideous and beautiful at the same time, and captivates the pens of many great, era-transcendent authors. Tom Robbins says that “eating a raw oyster is like French-kissing a mermaid.” Perhaps the greatest oyster author, MFK Fisher, wrote that “an oyster leads a dreadful but exciting life,” in her introduction to the challenges an oyster faces in the early days of existence. I will resist the urge to add my metaphors to the great canon of oyster literature, but if one should slip out, it’s not my fault as I’m currently under the spell of sea that a dozen Olympias brought to me.
I recently made the very wise decision to ask Jon Rowley to dinner. Haven’t heard of this swashbuckling pioneer of the terra and the mare who helped sculpt the eco side of the fishing industry into what it is today? Let’s just say he can count the likes of Julia Child and Ruth Reichl among his cadre of friends. His colorful life has made him as at home in the hipster halls of his alma mater, Reed College, as in the swells of the Alaskan high seas, where he developed a taste for the salted life and first began making waves for change in the fishing industry.
He experienced his first oyster-enchantment in Paris and cites this Hemingway passage as the impetus for his annual oyster wine competition:
“I closed up the story in the notebook and put it in my inside pocket and I asked the waiter for a dozen of the Portugaises and a half carafe of the dry white wine they had there. After writing a story I was always empty and both sad and happy, as though I had made love, and I was sure this was a very good story although I would not know truly how good until I read it over the next day.
As I ate the oysters with their strong taste of the sea and their faint metallic taste that the cold white wine washed away, leaving only the sea taste and the succulent texture, and as I drank their cold liquid from each shell and washed it down with the crisp taste of the wine, I lost the empty feeling and began to be happy and to make plans.”
“A Good Café on the Place St. Michel”
from A Moveable Feast
by Ernest Hemingway
At the appointed hour, Jon arrived at the doorstep with buckets in hand and shucking spirit in heart. He had brought 12 dozen rare, Olympia oysters for our group of eight. Our only native oyster, these Olympias (Ostrea Luridia) were five years old, which is unheard of, especially because they grow only to the size of a silver dollar. My first thought was that we’d surely wind up in orgiastic repose after consuming such a vast quantity, but we managed to keep the night PG-13. Olympias convey a lot in terms of flavor despite their small stature. Imagine if the ocean was a small ice cream sundae on a particularly hot day. The first taste would soothe, the middle bites would disappear fast so as not to melt in the sun, but the last bites you would savor, deliberately eating them cautiously to maximize pleasure. Olympias personify the part of the ocean that is the very last bite.
Of course you would want something to soften the blow of taking that final bite, and that is where oyster wine comes in. Every year, the oyster wine competition strives to find the very best wines by which to savor oysters. Jon brought over three bottles of Heitz Sauvignon Blanc ’09, which was a winning vintage in the most recent competition (and sadly, sold out). Submissions from all over are narrowed down until 10 wines that are cold, crisp and clean-finishing win the seal of approval. They are said to be the perfect supporting actor to bring out the leading man quality in oysters, enhancing and simultaneously smoothing their briny, metallic taste.
Jon set about to prying the oysters from their hinged houses and I commenced making pictures. In honor of the oysters, I had prepared two of the least-imposing accompaniments I could think of to go alongside. Jon had given me fair warning that he believes the only way to truly savor an oyster is cold, fresh and unadorned. To a point, I agree with him. Oysters are like hauntingly-gorgeous women- best without clothing or makeup. I cannot abide by cooking sweet, delicate oysters in any way, and I don’t understand why certain cultural traditions have called for dousing them in slathery, robust sauces.
I do, however, enjoy an oyster with a splash of lemon, and I know many oyster-aficionados prefer a bit of kick to amp up the salty succulence. I opted to keep it very simple, using a sodium alginate spherification process to make caviar of Meyer lemon granitas. In addition, I served Sriracha bubbles which were light as air and therefore did not interfere with the palpable oyster texture.
Jon and I had a comedic clash of wills over my contraband accoutrements, but he was amenable enough to allow them to grace the oyster ice. He even tried my concoctions and I caught a fleeting expression of childlike amusement in his eyes. He acts like I’m a real-life sorceress, teasing me about my dusts, powders, spoodles and vials. I was happy to demystify my galactic culinary rituals for Jon- unveiling nothing stranger than an immersion blender and three ingredients to conjure the deceptively esoteric Sriracha bubbles.
Jon describes fondly-recalled oyster experiences as oyster moments. At some point, one of my dinner party guests asked him to name a favorite oyster moment. He said “this one that we’re in is right up there.” I had an oyster moment a few months ago that lured me into the magnificence of the mollusk during an experience called the Walrus and Carpenter Picnic. It is an oyster-eating bacchanal that takes place by the light of a full moon in December or January while standing on the Totten Inlet oyster beds of Taylor Shellfish Farms along with dozens of revelers.
Even the most ardent oyster-loather is powerless to resist the siren song at a moment such as that. I frequently find myself with impassioned desire for a platter of oysters crudo after having spent that night walking punchdrunk on the sea. If you are in the greater Seattle area next winter, you really should consider making the pilgrimage.
I often wax on about the perfect bite. I go to great lengths and employ the use of a vast amount of gadgetry to try and recreate such a taste. Let it never be said about Salty Seattle, however, that I cannot recognize the simple perfection present in unadulterated food. The paramount example is the oyster; elevated to deistic stature by sheer virtue of its epitomization of ambrosia when it comes to taste, texture, temperature and experience. Maybe sometimes I play god in my kitchen, trying to recreate something unequivocally-ideal. I should be clear, however, in giving credit where credit is due. Aint nobody does the god thing better than god (or Yoda, or whoever you think he/she is). The oyster is de facto evidence.
Simple Sriracha Bubbles
Yield: enough to adorn 12 dozen oysters on the half shell
*In the interest of full disclosure, this recipe will perfume your kitchen and your nostrils with a spicy Sriracha aura. You may sneeze. Most people love it.
- 1/4 c sriracha or other hot sauce of your choice
- 3/4 c purified water
- 1 teaspoon powdered soy lecithin (available at nutrition stores)
1. In a small saucepan, heat the sriracha and the water over medium heat until fully incorporated and lightly simmering. Your kitchen will smell fiery and your nasal passages will love you.
2. Remove from heat and pour into a small, shallow bowl that allows an immersion (hand) blender to plunge into the liquid just barely above blade height. Add the soy lecithin.
3. Agitate with an immersion blender just at water height in order to introduce the maximum amount of air into the liquid. The more air you introduce, the fluffier your bubbles. The soy lecithin acts as a stabilizer, and once your bubbles form, they will hold for a good 20 minutes. Spoon bubbles off into a shallow serving dish and place near the ice-filled platter that holds your oysters.