I don’t have a first oyster memory. It has been crowded out by so many others, vivid and indelible, that followed.
There was a fried-oyster po’ boy that I once asked a cabdriver to make a detour for on the way to the airport. I had him stop and wait for me outside Domilise’s in New Orleans while I got one last sandwich — juicy, hot, slathered with sauce and packed into a feather-light roll — to take with me on an evening flight back to New York. Never mind that I had already had one on each day of my visit.
There was a three-tiered platter of local oysters in Brittany, on the French coast — the tide out, the boats stuck in the mud looking like sleeping dogs on slack clothesline leashes in their backyards. The air itself was an oyster — silty and mineral on the inhale, with the pearl gray sky all the way to the horizon. A whole bottle of muscadet sur lie and a whole buttered baguette, a whole afternoon.
For a year of my life, I was a member of a tony private club — a membership given to me as part of a barter arrangement. And it had a $1 oyster happy hour. I went as often as I could, trying to be discreet while gawking at the fabulous ladies in cashmere socks, mink stoles, burgundy lipstick and burgundy eyebrows, most of them well into their 80s. They were delighted by the bargain oysters, which came with lemon halves cloaked in cheesecloth bonnets to trap any seeds.
That’s the thing about the oyster: It’s a workhorse. It can be dressed up and dressed down, set out in tin trays on a plain wooden table by the seaside or nestled into gold-rimmed china for the white tablecloths and leather banquettes of an exclusive club. There is no elitism about the oyster itself. Humble and haute, it goes both ways. Uptown and downtown, hot and cold, cooked or raw — one miraculous thing however and wherever it lands.
For many people it’s just not New Year’s Eve without a dozen on ice, and others feel the same way about Valentine’s Day. But I urge you to consider the oyster for Thanksgiving too: shucked, simmered in its own liquor, with cream, sherry, cayenne and a branch of thyme. Then spooned, blistering hot, over a thin slice of dry white toast. The oyster pan roast as the opener to our Thanksgiving meal is an experience I very nearly wait up for the night before, not unlike a kid awaiting Christmas morning.
Maybe the favorite of all is the summer fried-seafood-shack experience, the waiting in line, the cheeky tip-jar slogans. I love how they pass the tray through the screen window and call your number, in some clever places from a deck of cards. Seven of hearts! Seven of hearts! And out comes your tray with the red checkered wax paper and nuggets fried to greasy perfection by a teenager in ill-fitting clear-plastic gloves.
But one thing you can’t usually get at such a place is particularly good fried oysters. The pleasures of those summer seafood shacks can also be their disappointments. To produce at that kind of volume, you have to, well, produce at that kind of volume. Sacks and sacks of commercially shucked oysters, covered in commercial breading, out of commercial deep freezers. What I love about a home-fried oyster is the possibility for something not just nostalgic and postcard-y but also highly delicious.
To freshly shuck your own plump oysters, rinse them in their briny liquor, dredge them ever so lightly and fry to order. That is, in my book, a kind of fine dining. We use meaty Blue Points from Long Island Sound, because they are pretty big and can stand up to the fry. Keep the shucking clean, grit-free, expert, no matter what oyster, what cove, what farm. The dredge is seasoned flour, beaten egg and panko, the Japanese bread crumb that fries up so crispy and airy. After delicately coating each oyster, let it dry on a baker’s rack so that a crust forms. That way, when they fry they are confidently encased and won’t split open, and the briny steam of the juicy oyster is sealed inside.
The home-fried oyster is already a win. But it is really as much an excuse for the tartar sauce. This one is sparky and vibrant, with capers and cornichons — and some of the liquids they are packed in — as well as minced raw shallots. Tang and brightness come from sour cream and lemon juice. There is no trace of sugar, no cloy from traditional American-style pickle relish you usually get at the summer seafood shack.
Sometimes, for a gathering, we scrub the bottom half of the oyster shells, the cup side, and dry them thoroughly for a tidy presentation. We then spoon tartar sauce into the cup and place the fried oyster on top. Fan those out on a bed of rock salt. For brunch, we tuck a few fried oysters and a dollop of tartar sauce inside a three-egg omelet and serve with a slurry of Tabasco and confectioner’s sugar on the side. Try it. I’m not kidding. It’s addictive.
And if it’s lunchtime, try piling a generous half a dozen fried oysters into a fresh split baguette with shaved iceberg lettuce and paper-thin tomatoes. Slather the whole thing with extra tartar sauce. Great at your kitchen table, or even in the back of a taxi on your way to the airport.
Recipe: Fried Oysters With Tartar Sauce