Don’t Romance Me with Oysters

by Roberta

If love goes through the stomach, it must get past the mouth first. Flashback to an earlier time, when I was on the younger side of 10: My parents and I went to an international food and agriculture fair in West Berlin, Germany. Each booth, or at least nearly every booth, had something to taste: a shaving of cured meat, a wedge of cheese, a booze-drenched plum, and so on.

To be honest, I don’t remember the foods that much at all, but I do remember the boozy plums, lots of wine samples, and oysters (make that one oyster, and no, I was not a pre-adolescent abuser of alcohol).

If it ever happened to you that while watching someone else’s enjoyment of a food you thought your experience would be the same, then you will understand what comes next.

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Oysters. Then as now, they looked intriguing, somewhat suspicious albeit harmless in their glossy half-shells served with lemon wedges. The people standing at the booth eating them looked like they were enjoying their food, so did my dad, so, I thought, could I (my mom didn’t make any attempts at getting a sampling; warning #1). Sadly, nobody had explained to me that the poor things were raw and still alive. Had I known, I would have purposefully avoided the following life enriching experience.

Being barely 10, I tried to be totally pro about all this. I can observe, I can copy, I can convince myself that I know what I’m doing, and dang it, I can eat with grownups. The first surprise was that the flesh of the oyster was stuck to the shell (warning #2). My father showed me how to pry it loose with a little fork provided by the folks running the booth (one step closer to never eating oysters again…). Great! Now that the creature was free I could slurp it up like everyone else, and so I did.

I don’t recall whether I had squirted it with lemon juice or not, but I don’t think it would have made a difference. After my first chew (nobody told me I wasn’t supposed to chew, but just swallow), and a courageous second and third, it was too late to save the situation. I now realized the thing wasn’t cooked, and you bet it wasn’t going down the hatch. I had no option but to return the mangled animal to its shell because no threat on earth could have made me swallow it. Luckily there were complimentary mini glasses of white wine to chase this mishap with (the wine I did swallow… happily; nobody objected; we’re talking Europe, after all).

Clearly, raw oysters belong in a group of textures that I do not like, never mind that eating live and raw animals is not my thing. It wasn’t the taste I found objectionable, it was the mouth feel: not so much slimy as firm, a firmness that felt totally wrong, foreign and unacceptable to my mouth (alive and raw, hello!).

But it is February, and Valentine’s Day is all about love, romance and sex, and we can’t talk about romance (and particularly sex) without talking about aphrodisiacs, and oysters are at the top of the list.
Personally, I prefer oysters to stay in their natural habitat and let them do their job: they perform an amazing ecological service as biological water filtration systems. And frankly, let the sea otters have them. However, they are rather fascinating for an animal that doesn’t move much as an adult (for more on oysters click here).

According to some of the literature that I leafed through, oysters have a reputation of lore as a potent libido enhancer due to their high content of zinc, a major building block for testosterone (reportedly tireless lover Casanova gorged on oysters to keep up his stamina). But more than that, it’s the shape of the oyster’s vulnerable looking delicate flesh – with its wet glossiness reminiscent of a somewhat frilly vagina – that adds to its sexy reputation. After all, before food hits the mouth, it is “eaten” with the eyes.

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I asked Kristin Donovan, co-owner of Hooked, one of our summer market vendors, how she likes her oysters: “Raw on the half shell, no lemon”, but, she says, she does add hot sauce when she hits her 3rd dozen. “Raw oysters taste like ocean; cooked they taste fishy.” Just as wine aficionados use ‘terroir’ to describe the subtle, but distinct differences in regional flavours of wine, ‘merroir’ describes the regional flavour oysters absorb from the waters they grow in. So an oyster from one spot on the shore of, let’s say, Prince Edward Island, will taste differently from those grown in another, which will then again differ from the taste of an oyster from British Columbia, Nova Scotia, or Chesapeake Bay. Once the oyster’s cooked, the merroir is gone.

Oysters are a healthy super food, low in fat and calories, and packed with protein and nutrients like vitamins A, D and B12, minerals like iron, magnesium and the aforementioned zinc, and the so super healthy Omega 3 fatty acids (here’s a full list of goodies).

Besides their resemblance to that particular part of the aforementioned female anatomy, the other reason why oysters have such a sexy reputation, as Kristin Donovan puts it, lies in the “act of eating: the hand to mouth, the slurping”. (Think of the messiness of eating a dressed leafy salad or tomato sauce coated spaghetti (the famous pooch smooch of Disney’s Lady and the Tramp excepted), for example, compared to the elegance and neatness of eating an oyster.)

Oysters are one of the best ecologically sustainable seafood choices available, says Donovan. They are farmed (so, no destruction and over-harvesting of natural oyster beds), provide a natural ecological service (water purification while feeding on waterborne microorganisms and organic matter), and they don’t require any additional feed. When is the best time to purchase them? Any time! Nowadays oyster cages are moved to deeper and, hence, cooler water in summer to keep them from spawning and developing a funky taste which is the reason for the recommendation to eat them only during months containing an ‘r’ (i.e. the colder months of the year).

In the end, the act of eating and enjoyment is all about pleasure: the flavour, the mouth-feel, the colours of the food, the ambiance and the company. If eating raw oysters turns your sensual crank, go for it. If it’s fancy chocolate truffles, pie, cake, cookies, stinky cheese, a roasted chicken, or naked grapes that make you feel alive, amorous, happy or just contented, the food world is your oyster (full pun intended!). Pick the food that gives you and your honey pleasure for Valentine’s or any day of the year, and love the one you’re with, even if it is only you.

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What would Kristin Donovan pick for a romantic dinner besides oysters? “Fois gras, flounder (either baked or pan fried), and a nice selection of cheeses.” But, she cautions “you should never be too full to make love.”

Sadly, you won’t find any local (i.e. Ontario) oysters (they are at home in saline waters), but for fresh oysters and other sustainable seafood choices in the hood check out Hooked, 888 Queen E. (just west of Logan).

Some fun oyster links: The Tale of the Oyster by Cole Porter, The Oyster, a poem by Unknown.

Some oyster and seafood-centric restaurants: Oyster Boy, Starfish, John & Sons.

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