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Ode To Oysters

I don’t remember where or when I tasted my first raw oyster, but I DO remember that it was a game changer. Plump and juicy, redolent of the sea, a tender resistance in the chew… was love at first bite, if not sight.

Being raised in a good Catholic family, we did the fish-on-Friday thing. Typically it was either frozen fish sticks, a tuna noodle casserole or smelts, small sardine-sized fish, intact but for their heads, coated in bread crumbs and baked on a cookie sheet in the oven. Almost 100% of my fresh seafood experience as a child consisted of shellfish and mollusks. By shellfish I mean boiled Maine lobster with melted butter and by mollusks I mean Ipswich belly clams, steamed and served with salty, buttery broth. Those clams---steamers (pronounced “stee-mizz” in Boston), are the stuff of my dreams and would no doubt have a place of honor at my last meal. I remember oysters as being somewhat of a luxury. Wellfleet oysters, harvested on Cape Cod were the most widely available, but they weren’t cheap. They may have been my first taste---perhaps at the Durgin Park Oyster Bar at Boston’s Faneuil Hall. I do remember my first experience where oysters were local, abundant and affordable. They came out of the Lockwood Folly in southeastern North Carolina, no more than a short boat ride from our home on Oak Island. Oh man! Were they delightful! Starting in October, they were brought out of the Folly by the boatload, and they were large and salty/sweet. Friends would buy them by the bushel basket and steam them ever so slightly on a sheet of tin placed over a wood fire. They would be on the heat just until the shell popped open, making them much easier to get to and perfuming them with a whiff of smoke. Bring your own oyster knife, bring your own beer, stand around the fire and eat them as fast as you can. Throw the shells in a pile off to the side---it’s a party!

The Lockwood Folly oysters solidified what I consider “my taste” in oysters. Oyster flavor is determined by the waters where they grow and that makes for a wide variety of delicious adjectives. Sweet, creamy, briny, coppery, fruity, minerally---on and on. I’m a briny girl. Definitely briny. One day, about 20 years ago, I found the Holy Grail. I reached Valhalla. I tasted the perfect oyster. The oyster that was the absolute definition of briny. That oyster’s name was “Apalachicola”. (Let’s pause for a moment of silence….) An entire Igloo cooler full of Apalachicola oysters were brought in by my husband who was working a project in L.A. (Lower Alabama---specifically, Dothan). Every couple of weeks he would make the 8 hour drive back to Knoxville for a long weekend, and this time he brought the food of the gods with him. We stood in the kitchen, shucking and eating and shucking and shucking and eating and eating, then shucking some more. We lost all track of time. We were awash in the cold, briny goodness that had been plucked from the bottom of the shallow Apalachicola Bay in the coastal middle of the Florida Panhandle. I remember that day like a dream. When we had finally reached a point where we could not hold another briny bite, our sink was piled high with shells, our shucking hands were exhausted and our lips were swollen into a salty pucker. It was heaven!

Fast forward about 15 years. I had the opportunity to enjoy a triple legged vacation that started on Lake Conroe in Texas, progressed to Bay St. Louis, Mississippi and finished on St. George Island, Florida---where I was just two beautiful bridges away from Apalachicola. The Source! It was late January and my oyster game was ON! We ate oysters at local restaurants, we ate them at the house, we ate them everywhere we could. It was such a delightful time that we negotiated to stay an extra three days. The town of Apalachicola, although diminutive, is bright and colorful and alive with a vibe that is the story of coastal “Old Florida”. I fell in love with the area, the sights, the sounds, the people and the critters in such an instant and complete way that I am convinced I spent at least one past life there. That is a whole other story to tell and I will do so happily one day soon. As it happens, I am on St. George Island as I write this. It is day 3 of a two week stay, and I am about to make my second trip across two bridges into Apalachicola. Today is the day to score a big burlap sack of briny beauties, and I can’t wait! Oyster on!!

The Southern Yankee Kitchen

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