Seafood Mama Part I: Shucking the Oyster

by Foodie Fatale on November 6, 2010

in Connecticut,Lessons,Seafood

Photo by Charlene Ribera

All photos of this adventure were taken by Charlene Ribera

Hold the oyster, deep shell down…Insert the point of an oyster knife, which has a strong pointed blade…into the hinge between the shells at the pointed end of the oyster. Turn the knife to pry open and lift the upper shell enough to cut through the hinge muscle. Run the knife point between the shells to open…Once open, scrape the oyster from its shell, but do not remove it…
-Irma S. Rombauer, Marion Rombauer Becker and Ethan Becker,

I’ve always wanted to be the kind of woman who could use a sharp knife to shuck an oyster with ease.  Someone like the street-smart yet glamorous Greta Garbo in Anna Christie.

I finally had the opportunity to shuck last weekend.

As you know, I have been having something of a love affair with the state of Connecticut since I returned here to live in June. This is in large part due to my proximity to fresh local seafood, shellfish in particular. I was thrilled when I read that after an almost 20-year hiatus, oysters are once again being harvested in my hometown of Madison and that the Madison Shellfish Commision would be hosting a Fall Oyster Harvest on the sandy beaches of the West Wharf.

In M.F. K. Fisher’s charming 1941 book Consider the Oyster, she proclaims oysters from Long Island Sound as her favorites in America, and with just cause. It is the temperature, salinity and mineral content of the water that gives each oyster its particular flavor.  An oyster that grows in local waters is “local” in both spirit and taste. I love my Long Island Sound oysters, and I hungrily anticipated tasting my first “Madisons.”

A well-documented 20-year struggle with parasites ravaged the oysters of Long Island Sound. Under the  leadership of Commissioner Steve Nikituk, the Madison Shellfish Commission has spent the past 6 years growing and rebuilding oyster growth in sanctuaries along Madison’s Neck and East Rivers. There is now a robust commercial trade, as well as opportunities for non-commercial oyster lovers like myself.

I arrived at West Wharf armed with a shiny wire oyster basket and  sharp knife from Captain Morgan’s Bait and Tackle. The sun shone brightly; the air was cold and windy.  The sand was strewn with oysters that had been harvested that same morning from beds in the nearby Neck River.

I purchased my shellfish license and joyfully gathered my oysters, trying not to let my impractical boots get wet.

I rinsed my beautiful oysters in the Sound and joined Shellfish Commission member Bruce Joslyn, who gave me my lesson while a group of enthusiastic strangers stood by and cheered me on.

As you may guess, opening an oyster is not a simple task. But a task whose reward is well worth the danger and effort.

It required much more strength than I imagined. After I inserted the knife in the hinge I used all my strength to dig deeply. I twisted and turned, throwing my weight against the knife, trying not to splinter the sharp shell.

Needless to say, my mentor insisted I stop and put on a protective glove, much to the relief of my audience.

At last, the telltale sound of the top shell releasing. The subsiding pressure of my hand. And the gentle maneuvering of my knife to unloosen the treasure.

Still salty and wet from Long Island Sound, it was the best I ever had.  As any oyster lover will attest, eating a raw oyster is an unparalleled visceral experience…the rapturous pleasure of holding the soft body in your mouth and chewing slightly before swallowing. The taste was enhanced because I shucked it myself. As was the fun. Because, as you see, I am perhaps more Lucille Ball than Greta Garbo…

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