Note from Peter: Jenn Burns, who last appeared here following her coffee farm adventure in Central America picking beans on a steep mountain slope, is back. Jenn just graduated Magna cum Laude from Davidson College, a few miles north of Charlotte, with a degree in Food and Environmental Studies. During her four years at Davidson I've been following her career through her writings as she transitioned through the many universal rites of passage into adulthood. The following is a recounting of one such recent adventure and Jenn gave me permission to share it with all of you. Her final legacy at the university is that she was able to help guide the administration in bringing locally raised products into the school's food service operation, thus supporting local farmers and food producers. Her next big adventure will be as an American delegate to the Slow Food Terra Madre/Salone del Gusto gathering in Italy this fall. Hopefully, the following will not be the last we hear from her. Enjoy!
In an independent study project for my Food Literature and Writing course at Davidson College this past semester, oysters somehow became pervasive in many of the readings. Of course, the ubiquitous nature of oysters in the artisan food world should have come as no surprise since there are over 200 varieties in North America alone, and the flavor of an oyster is almost entirely determined by its terroir. I also learned that oysters are an easily accessible food that can set a serious foodie apart from a mere food aficionado, and I realized that I had some serious catching up to do. My only previous experience with oysters began and ended one fateful night when I was about seven years old and not yet experienced enough to be discerning about such things. Neither of my parents would ever let a slimy grey sea creature pass through their own lips, but they agreed that it would be great entertainment to see how their adventurous, fearless kiddo would react. Not knowing any better, I slurped up the small pile of slimy goop, juice and all, and began to chew. I continued to chew and chew and chew. After I became visibly more distressed, my dad suggested I just go ahead and swallow the now even goopier substance that I had collected in my mouth. I tried, but my esophagus simply refused to let it go down so there, in the middle of one of Indianapolis’ finest dining establishments, I barfed the oyster. Needless to say, I tried for years to block this experience and everything to do with oysters from my memory.
But, nearly 15 years later, oysters are everywhere in my life. A few weeks ago I read perhaps the best food memoir ever written, The Gastronomical Me, in which M.F.K. Fisher relays a story of two lesbian lovers sensually feeding one another oysters. I later learned, through research, that oysters are often thought to be an aphrodisiac because they are high in zinc, which controls progesterone and, as a result, sexual drive. Furthermore, since sexual appetite often starts in the mind, and an oyster is reminiscent of the female sex organ, oysters may encourage a psychological effect on the libido. More recently I read A Short History of the American Stomach, which, surprisingly, concludes with the history of oysters! I learned oysters were once a staple food for colonists until they ate the native American oysters to extinction; indeed oysters were the country’s first indigenous species eradicated by humans. Now, scientists are furiously working to create a triploid oyster that could be farmed, but would not be able to reproduce in case an oyster were to escape, which would decimate local ecosystems. But, another reason is to also ensure that all the oysters’ energies go towards growing big and delicious for human consumption, and that no energy goes into such frivolous tasks as reproduction. Another interesting factoid is that all oysters are born male; then, upon reaching sexual maturity, and every year for the rest of their lives, each oyster decides whether to remain male, become female, or to be a hermaphrodite (about 1 in 50), yet it is still unknown why oysters change sex. Simultaneously, I was reading a collection on the history of various foods called, What Caesar Did for My Salad, and learned that Oysters Rockefeller was invented in New Orleans at Antoine’s in 1840 and that the recipe has remained a closely guarded secret ever since. The sauce for this dish is bright green, resembling a dollar bill; thus, it was named after the richest man in the world, John D. Rockefeller. Meanwhile, I am about to graduate from college and have been told on numerous occasions to celebrate because “the world is my oyster.”
All of these readings transformed my opinions of oysters to the degree that I, the previously traumatized oyster-phobe, suggested to our class that we go out for oysters. Despite studying and teaching about food for almost two decades, my professor, who I nicknamed "The Goddess of Food," had never eaten raw oysters either, so, she fully supported the adventure and agreed to join us. I found a list of the ten best places for seafood in the Charlotte area and selected one located conveniently close to Davidson College. I found myself thinking about the pending dining experience days before the actual event; I was worried that my uncontrollable gag reflex would spring into action. I realized that I didn’t know how to properly eat an oyster and I was concerned that the oyster would taste revolting. I imagined myself with shell to lips, yet unable to take the leap. It would be the food equivalent of having toes curled over the edge of the diving board but unable to flip into the pool.
Three of us -- the professor and two brave students -- made the trek to Vinnie’s Raw Bar. It was, quite possibly, the worse place imaginable to go with one’s professor. This was the Hooters of seafood shacks. Well-endowed waitresses were wearing tight shirts and tighter booty shorts that revealed many tattoos and piercings. A party of firemen blasted hard rock. Posters, signs, and graffiti sure to offend every profession, race, and gender covered the walls. Having read Margaret Vissers’ treatise on table manners, The Rituals of Dinner, that week for the class, I could only imagine what she and Emily Post would have to say about this dive.
We tentatively ordered a half dozen raws. Thanks to the guidance of our waitress, who herself refuses to eat oysters, we put the mollusk on a cracker and added a dollop of cocktail sauce and a squeeze of lemon. Inspired by the "Goddess of Food’s" confident lead, I popped my little tartine too. It tasted like lemon and the dominating cocktail sauce and it felt like a cracker and, you know, it wasn’t bad at all. In fact, it was good. Vinnie’s, I soon learned, sources their oysters from Apalachicola Bay, on the panhandle of Florida. It is the only place in the United States where oysters are still wild and are harvested using tongs from small boats. This is merely one example of how that small community strives to preserve traditional livelihoods. Apalachicola Bay oysters are thought to be some of the best in the world, if not the best, thanks to their natural mellowness (as opposed to being overly salty) and the plump, meatiness of the oysters. For my second oyster, which I eagerly scooped up directly from the shell, I tried a bit of horseradish instead of cocktail sauce. It too was delicious! Although other oyster varieties, such as Naked Cowboy, Hama Hama, and sweet petite have more tempting titles, I now recommend to to any oyster virgin (which I no longer am!) to start with the best - Apalachicola Bay oysters.
Our shared raw oyster experience lasted only a few minutes and seemed almost anticlimactic at the time, although it has forever changed my self-styled status to that of a daring foodie. We soon moved on to Vinnie's fried oyster baskets and a lively evening of literary discussion as if we had not just enjoyed a small scoop of delicious slime.