Oysters make ambivalence impossible. If you’ve had them, it’s either love or hate. I worship.
I love to suck them from the shell, plain and raw, holding the liquor (oyster juice) in my mouth for as long as I can. I even chew to prolong the taste and texture.
Of the shellfish, oysters are the grittiest. A hastily shucked oyster often contains sand, bits of shell, and hard points in an otherwise delicate body of flesh. To eat one, you have to get dirty, grasp the jagged outer shell, and let juice slide down your palms in the process. Oysters demand that we relinquish control and submit to a salty mess.
I’m from the Florida panhandle. I grew up near the Gulf Coast, where my father and I spent many afternoons in dive bars eating raw oysters from Apalachicola by the dozens and drinking cheap beer. It was not a decadence; it was not especially expensive. Often, bikers parked their elbows next to ours. That kind of place doesn’t really exist inland.
Although we’ve been eating these shellfish for the past 150,000 years, oyster farming and harvesting are currently undergoing a transformative comeback. I could list the spectacular qualities of oysters at book length (some have: see the ever delightful Consider the Oyster by M.F.K. Fisher). They filtrate and clean the ocean, their shells have a lustrous beauty, they make rocks, they are gender fluid, they are the product of complicated ecological processes, and they are sexy.
We can opine for days on what makes an oyster good to eat—its freshness, the time of year, its salinity, its size. There is no single right way an oyster should taste. The only parameters? It must be cold, alive, and clean. Of the more than one hundred and fifty oyster varieties in North America, some are mild and meaty, others crisp, pungent, and briny. Some dollop the tongue like creamy butter.
There are less visceral ways to eat an oyster than raw: grilled, steamed, with parmesan, fried, broiled, simmered with milk and butter and turned into a stew. But in its raw state, the oyster is most oyster. It tastes of its home.
A part of me will always believe that oysters are best when, from where you are slurping, you can see the water from whence they came. Still, people work hard to bring these bivalve mollusks to the Piedmont fresh and alive.
Unfortunately, oyster eating will always be more expensive when you’re landlocked. I do, however, favor a few spots in the Triangle that achieve a good nexus of quality, affordability, and service. All of them involve special days and times to get the best deal.
Squid’s in Chapel Hill hosts a daily happy hour special with half off its normal prices for a half dozen or full dozen of that day’s selection. Oysters are shucked in full view behind the bar. The blue work gloves are a nostalgic comfort for me. The oysters are not as cold as I like them, but the bar atmosphere is casual and the service immediate. You get a whole ramekin of muddled horseradish along with the traditional cocktail sauce (a varied combination of mostly ketchup, hot sauce, lemon juice, and horseradish), a lemon wedge, and a tray of saltine crackers. I should point out that there is an inverse relationship between the price range and formality of a restaurant and the amount of condiments one receives. For better or worse, Squid’s does not skimp on fixings.
If it is Tuesday, I suggest double-dipping at the corner of Hillsborough Road and Ninth Street in Durham. Both Blu Seafood and Bar and Vin Rouge offer an excellent oyster special. Every Tuesday, North Carolina oysters are $1 each at Vin Rouge, which is wonderful for getting the flavor scope of our state. Blu offers half market price on a select variety, with a half-dozen minimum (as most places do). Blu also allows full-price oysters to be ordered in singles. This is a great way to try a new variety on a budget. Both restaurants serve the shells on ice with cocktail sauce and mignonette (a mixture of vinegar, shallot, and pepper).
One of the great pleasures of oysters is opening them for yourself. I rank Tom Robinson’s Seafood in Carrboro as a top oyster-getting spot. Buying unopened, still-in-the-shell oysters directly from a seafood provider ensures greater freshness, which is the most important quality to look for. Find an oyster knife (other knives will do, but beginner shuckers will want the real deal). Learn from a friend or watch a YouTube video. Appreciate the strength of that muscular foot as you twist and pop the shells apart. And feed yourself.
I don’t foray into Raleigh that often, but have it on good word (our food editor’s) that Stanbury offers seasonal varieties of oysters sourced from the North Carolina coast and other points north, raw or fried.
Oysters demand that we bend ourselves and our schedules to get to them. Go out and find the right oyster discount hour for you. I especially recommend making it happen in September. Delight and relish in the hundred kinds of estuary brine.