Oysters:  A love story

I met a man from Long Island — at a bar, by chance, a year after I moved to New York — and right away I liked him. We walked from the bar to a 24-hour diner in the East Village and got grilled cheese sandwiches and French fries and drank bad room-temperature coffee and talked for hours, until a stranger came over and asked if we would like him to officiate our wedding, right there, in the church of Veselka, at this sticky table by the bathroom.

By then it was light outside. I’d known the man for nine hours, and I was powered by an engine of pure enthusiasm. I said sure, why not, yes. Our waitress rolled her eyes but agreed to be the witness as we smeared an unofficial document with ketchup.

Not long after, I learned that the man I’d diner-married had worked for many years opening clams and oysters in bars, and it had left him with a calm, cleareyed appreciation. What I mean is, he didn’t get worked up when he talked about oysters, not like some people I knew. And he didn’t insist that I try one particular variety, grown off one remote island, with nothing but a squirt of lemon, of course, because anything more would be disrespectful to the oyster.

I liked oysters just fine, but not that much. When I ate them raw, by the dozen, they were occasionally delicious — fat and intact and salty, slipping out of pristine shells. Just as often they were nothing special. Like mouthfuls of bland, brackish jelly, or the sweat off coins from deep pockets, or the fermented milk of a mythical sea creature. Now and then, at a bar with a careless shucker, I got one that had been pried open with a dirty knife.

It would be flipped out of shape, hiding grit or sharp, calcified fragments that cut at my tongue. It didn’t seem worth the hassle.

But there was something about the way he liked oysters — keenly and quietly, without fetish or hyperbole — that made me reconsider. We carried about 100, along with a jar of chopped shallots in vinegar, to my friend’s apartment one New Year’s Eve, in part because I wanted to get good at opening them; I could manage only one or two in the time he opened six. Later on, we ate them smoked, on crackers, and hot, in pan roasts and sandwiches, and when we visited friends in New Orleans, roasted in garlic butter, freckled with pulverized anchovies and cayenne pepper. Then we walked down the street with grease stains on our clothes, toward music.

When my parents came to visit the apartment we’d shared for three years, I blitzed butter in a food processor with hot sauce, lemon zest and garlic, until the streaks disappeared and the mixture was a pale peachy pink. Outside, the man sat at the table and talked and opened oysters with them while I lit the charcoal for my tiny travel-size grill. I dropped lumps of cold butter into each shell, crowding them on a piece of crinkled foil, so they didn’t tip over. I could hear voices behind me, gossiping about family, gasping at rude things, bursting into what I recognized as a mix of both nervous and real laughter.

It took a few minutes for the butter to start bubbling, to make a tangy, fatty sauce with the oyster liquor, and for the meat to heat through.

Then we ate in rounds, with grilled bread to clean out the grooves in the shells, and a big, simple salad of romaine and sliced radishes, putting a dozen or so half shells on the grill every time we ran out.

What my mother wanted to know, after we’d emptied a bottle of wine, was if he and I ever talked about getting married. Not that she minded us living together, no, it wasn’t that, and not that it mattered these days, not at all.

She wasn’t old-fashioned, she insisted, but it would be so nice to know more about my long-term plans.

I told her the truth, that I didn’t have any long-term plans, but that the oysters on the grill couldn’t wait — oysters were like that. I had to go check on them right this second.

Grilled Oysters With Hot-Sauce Butter

Ingredients

8 ounces butter 3 tablespoons Crystal hot sauce 1 small garlic clove 1 lemon, zested, then cut into wedges 1 anchovy 48 oysters

Preparation

In a food processor, combine butter, hot sauce, garlic, lemon zest and anchovy, and pulse until there are no streaks of hot sauce and the butter is a uniform shade of pale pink. (If you don’t have a food processor, leave the butter out until it’s very soft, then beat the ingredients together with a spoon.) Scrape the mixture into a small bowl, and set aside in the fridge. Put the oysters in a large bowl in the sink, and scrub off any sand or grit. Rinse well, drain and refrigerate until you’re ready to shuck. To shuck: Grip an oyster with a folded dishtowel so the shell is cupped side down, hinge side facing toward you. Push the tip of the oyster knife into the hinge, and twist so it cracks open. Make sure the knife is clean of shell and grit, then use it to release the top shell, and slide it under the oyster meat to release it from the bottom shell. Repeat with remaining oysters, discarding any that are already open or that have a bad smell. Build a fire in your charcoal grill, or set a gas grill to high. Gently crumple a sheet of aluminum foil so its grooves can support the open oysters and keep them from spilling, and set it on the grate. Place 12 oysters on the foil, and top each with approximately ½ teaspoon of butter; use more for especially large oysters, but less for small ones. The idea is to cover the oyster with butter, but not to overfill the shell. Cover the grill, and cook until the butter and oyster juices are bubbling but the oyster is still plump, about 2 to 3 minutes. Use tongs to transfer hot oysters to a platter lined with another piece of foil that will keep the shells upright, and serve immediately with a bottle of hot sauce and lemon wedges at the table. Repeat with remaining oysters.

— The New York Times

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