By Kevin Koczwara I spit out the first oyster I ate. I was a teenager. What is that? I thought as it slithered across my tongue. Slimy. Its liquid reminded me of when the ocean splashed into my mouth. Over time, though, I watched people devour them, and wondered what made those bivalve mollusks so […]
By Yankee Magazine
Oct 20 2022
I spit out the first oyster I ate. I was a teenager. What is that? I thought as it slithered across my tongue. Slimy. Its liquid reminded me of when the ocean splashed into my mouth. Over time, though, I watched people devour them, and wondered what made those bivalve mollusks so appealing.
The oyster that changed me came from my father-in-law. He bought a few fresh from the ocean in Wellfleet from his local fishmonger. They had a perfect flat bottom and a ragged top that looked like the points on old topographical globes. They had that distinct angle and turn in their shell that I’d come to recognize in oysters from this part of Cape Cod. He asked if I wanted one. “Sure,” I said. He pulled an oyster knife from the kitchen drawer and showed me how to pop them open. I took one in my hand, searching the liquid and the belly for any leftover shell. I slurped it down. It was sweet and luscious. Now I understood.
There are certain features—taste, smell, shape, size—of each oyster, but, like people, oysters have a singular makeup within the environment they grow. Those expressions can be difficult to see at first. For a long time I overlooked them. Then, while working with oysters in a restaurant in Worcester—washing them, shucking them, putting them away each night, and placing them on a plate covered in crushed ice and accoutrements—I began to know them. Minute details appeared. I spun them in my hand and felt the soft spot that allows the knife to enter. I could pinpoint the angle needed so as not to pop the belly. I started to love them.
The first Friday night I worked, I got the unenviable job of going out to the oyster tank and shucking in front of the crowded restaurant. My boss, the expert, was out. I grabbed my towel and a bucket of crushed ice, and made sure I had the proper sauces and lime wedges. I checked the tickets and began shucking. My work that night was not impressive. The oysters appeared unsightly on the plate. But, with each subsequent shift, my skills grew.
It’s hard to grasp how each oyster is its own being. We think of them as either East Coast or West Coast. We can determine their flavor and their size and general shape depending on where they grow. But we miss something in those generalizations, how they’re alive with their own distinct upbringing. Over time, though, working with food makes you more cognizant of its nature. By cleaning and shucking oysters, my appreciation of them grew with each turn on the line.
I began tasting them during my shift to know their distinct flavors and perfumes. I could identify each variety on the plate after they were shucked and looked almost identical. My knife skills strengthened and their bellies remained intact. I wasn’t perfect, not like one of those shuckers at some enormous seafood restaurant in Boston. But no one could say I didn’t care.
At the start of a shift, I arranged the oysters in the giant tank of ice. I lined them in neat rows that displayed their beauty. At the end, I removed them from the tank and placed them in the corresponding tray and covered them carefully with ice before putting them to “bed” in the walk-in. I’d clean up with the cooks and go over the closing checklist. Before leaving, I’d peek in one last time, rechecking the ice to make sure the oysters were taken care of. I wondered who I would guide on their first oyster journey the next night and what their face would look like when the surprise arrived.