Gotham's Oysters, or, How the Hipster Stole the Drunkard's Food

09.22.2004 | Hala Lettieri | Food, Unfairly Forgotten, Urban Affairs | 5 Comments
Every few years, oyster bars are said to be making a comeback in New York. Usually the news is placed in a publication big amongst hip young restaurant-goers, in the hopes of convincing them that they’re discovering the next big thing. This time around that "new" thing is the raw bar. Some of these bars are imposing on a grand scale, others intimidating in their small, hidden, boutiquey feel, but all present their oysters in much the same way. With ceremony, the oysters, chosen from a daunting oyster menu, are presented on trays of ice arranged like towers on little stands, often tiered like wedding cakes, accompanied by artful and innovative sauces, these days featuring ginger and wasabi as often as mignonette or horseradish. The entire process is a ritualized demonstration of connoisseurship on the part of both proprietor and patron; diners will often ask for advice on choosing their oyster as though it were a fine wine.

It’s hard to think of an oyster spot, or even a restaurant featuring Blue Points or Malpeques as an occasional special, that doesn’t follow this pattern. Just around my old Greenwich Village haunts, I can choose from Blue Water Grill, Pearl, Fish, Pastis or Blue Ribbon, to name just a few, and count on having my oysters served in this fashion, with a few small variations. At Pastis, I’ve had my servers push the Malpeques as a pre-appetizer appetizer, implying that they are to be eaten for effect (or affect) rather than to satisfy hunger. At Fish, Muscadet is suggested as an accent to the Carraquets and the elaborate menu describes their oysters using terms like "buttery, cucumber finish."

A trip to the oyster bar is a demonstration of culture, like taking your six-year-old to the ballet instead of the latest Rugrats movie. As such, it’s something people don’t seem to do that often anymore, and really, who can blame them?

When did the East Coast oyster become so highbrow, anyway? As a food, they’ve become such an example of ersatz "classiness" that I expect to see oyster-eating in hip-hop videos in the near future, along with Courvoisier and Prada as a symbol of the finer things, a mark of purchased status. And who knows? Maybe P. Diddy wolfing one down would work wonders to reverse the current puritanical trend wherein oysters are improbably considered an acquired taste that somehow elevates the eater into high culture. Maybe people would start actually eat oysters again, instead of only writing articles about them for high-end dining magazines and semi-obscure websites.

In Kitchen Confidential, Anthony Bourdain follows a chapter detailing the culinary philistinism of his childhood with the story of his ecstatic initiation into the gourmet life. The story takes place in — where else? — France. Young Anthony has one oyster — the eating of which he describes as a ceremony, a test, a gross-out — and is elevated. No longer is he the embarrassment of his parents, drowning steak frites in ketchup to the sneers of French waiters. Now he has discovered the sophisticated world of the foodie. No indication is given that he enjoyed the raw oyster enough to want to make a meal of them, alone, with no one to watch and marvel at his sophisticated daring.

Well, that’s France for you. But despite their recently acquired air of foreignness and cultural sophistication the oyster actually has a long American history. Here in New York, where we once consumed so many oysters that Pearl Street takes its name from its former function as the dumping-ground of the city’s nightly harvest of shells, we should be a little more down-to-earth. We should remember the way we used to eat oysters, and find a way to do so again. Maybe then we’d eat oysters for the flavor, to ascend to a tastier — instead of "higher" — realm of eating pleasure.

Assimilated early into America’s culinary lexicon, both plentiful and cheap, the East Coast oyster became almost a staple by the mid-nineteenth century. Early oyster cooking methods were simple and often delicious. One of the purest and best methods for cooking "oyster stew," unchanged over nearly two centuries, is still to simply heat heavy cream and butter to the boiling point and add the oysters, removing the whole mixture from the flame and serving it with a little black pepper at the point where the edges of the oysters have begun to curl. From that beginning, more complicated innovations helped the stew evolve into a company meal, and other attempts at tarting up the poor oyster led to abominations like "oysters Rockefeller" that were fancy enough to be served to quality people.

Raw, the nineteenth century oyster was drunkard’s fare, and a poor drunk at that. The proliferation of oyster bars in neighborhoods like the Five Points was often pointed to as a societal problem; it was said that almost any kind of vice could be found in an oyster-bar. Certainly, it’s unlikely that the patrons of such places waited, dainty forks poised, for the arrival of an arrangement of assorted East Coast oysters served with tiny cups of ginger aioli and wasabi crème fraiche.

It’s also unlikely that they were dropping like flies from bad oysters. Friends of mine who happily wolf down handfuls of cut-rate end-of-the-night sashimi (which admittedly has been refrigerated into oblivion) confess a certain squeamishness about oysters. While a bad oyster is a miserable experience, it’s also one that’s fairly easy to avoid and not terribly common, even in an era when methods of preparing and serving raw foods were far less sterile than today. It’s easy to tell a bad oyster; they don’t smell or taste right. It isn’t really a stealth bomb such as, say, a bad goat-cheese omelet, which you can think is just supposed to taste foul. A raw oyster that isn’t gussyed up with soy and scallions and rice vinegar can’t really trick you. If one manages to sneak past you, you’ll usually realize in time to avoid swallowing it, and if not a few shots of vodka tossed back immediately will help take care of things, in my experience.

But the oyster fell so far out of favor that to be eaten at all it had to be re-packaged as high culture cuisine. Do the rumors of oysters’ aphrodisiacal powers call to mind Seventies-era swinger couples in polyester loungewear downing a few oysters with their strawberry champagne? Certainly there’s an almost cliché air of the forbidden about them; the ceremony, the hushed, devout ritual with the raised platters of crushed ice.

Perhaps New York could learn from how other American cities present the oyster these days. In San Francisco, from what I’ve seen, they have a bit more fun with the whole thing, but their oysters are delicate novelties like Kumamotos, far too subtle to evoke the sense of a Five Points oyster-night. They still know how to do it in New Orleans without all the fuss and ado, but who wants to choke down enormous rubbery Gulf oysters, surely intended for a more sensible and pleasurable use than human consumption? I’ve heard that it’s possible in some New England summer-weekend towns to have nice, salty, straightforward East Coast oysters without the drama… but New York City has an ancestral claim on its oyster-bar history, a tradition that, while looked down on in its time, is mourned with its passing. And do we really want to ape New England?

For now, New York seems stuck with the hip oyster establishments, which do at least tend to offer a quality product, if at an inflated prince and with a retro-gilded kitsch mostly associated with cigar bars. Should the oyster bars prove to have more staying power than the average cigar bar, we can hope for eventual imitators to spring up, offering discount versions of "the real thing," much as the past 15 years have seen sushi return to the realm of ordinary food. Perhaps the oyster bar will even re-establish itself as cheap, ubiquitous, not entirely respectable, and entirely taken for granted.

*****

Should you decide to experiment with oysters at home, almost any early American or New England cookbook can give you a number of wonderful and almost-forgotten recipes. The directions given above will still make the finest oyster stew. If you want something lighter and more modern you can try the following, which technically can be classed as "fusion" for your snob friends, since it incorporates Mediterranean elements into the standard oyster stew.

Raw oysters, some say, are best eaten unadorned. The some who say that are wrong. Some swear by lemon, and Tabasco has its fans. They too are wrong, if a bit less so. The correct answer is mignonette sauce, which may mute the flavor a bit but really, what are you trying to prove? To make the sauce, take red wine vinegar, shallots, and black pepper, preferably freshly cracked or coarsely ground. If all you have is the powdery stuff from the pepper shaker, you might want to forget the pepper altogether. Mix in any ratio you like. Dip the oysters into it, or drown them.



Thank you for a wonderful article and, more importantly, a delicious (and simple) recipe.
09.23.2004 | Sarah Simon
Well said!
There is a place for high end anything, but not at the expense of that same anything down where the rest of us live...on the low end.
09.27.2004 | A.R. Brook Lynn
My appreciation for the little glob of gluck is greater than ever, and should I ever take a foul one of these gems, I will be imagining you throwing back those three shots in a quite fivepointy joint. I shall also be onthe guard for those who might retro guide me.
11.9.2004 | John Herman
Ms. Letteri:

I too enjoyed this informative article; everything about oysters I always wanted...but was afraid to, er...

If you have some extra time at some point, could you please consider expanding your late father's articel on Wikipedia? Perhaps you could add some information concerning his background; i.e., where he had been born, raised and what he had done for a living prior to becoming an actor. I thought he had been a naturally gifted actor and that he had been *superb* in his most famous role.

Thanks much on both counts.
04.18.2009 | Donald Schneider

"New York seems stuck with the hip oyster establishments, which do at least tend to offer a quality product, if at an inflated prince and with a retro-gilded kitsch mostly associated with cigar bars." - completely agree! But now bars are full with people vaping ecigs.

04.8.2011 | Jay

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