Monday, December 26, 2005

"He was a bold man, that first eat an oyster."

Originally uploaded by Kit Pollard.

Every time I eat raw oysters, I think about how very, very hungry the first raw oyster-eater must've been. But also how very, very pleasantly surprised.

Last Thursday, I celebrated my 30th birthday with dinner and far too many drinks at the venerable McGarvey's. Cooper and I arrived early, around 5, and took advantage of the raw bar happy hour: oysters on the halfshell for $4 a dozen. They were good oysters, too, plump and salty but a tiny bit sweet. Presentation was unpretentious, to say the least - paper plates, plastic forks, and tiny plastic dishes of mild cocktail sauce, extra horseradish and perfectly vinegary mignonette sauce.

We each ate a dozen, THEN had dinner (plus a few of our friend Bert's mussels). I could've eaten a dozen more, I'm sure.

We sat in the back bar, where I spent much of my early 20s gazing up at the skylights, wondering how they keep the tree that lives in the middle of the restaurant alive. At the table next to us, a young family sat. The parents ordered beers and oysters, while the little girls waited for their chicken fingers.

At one point, the older girl - she was maybe about six - took the big risk we all must take at some point. She tried an oyster. The look on her face (as she spit it back out into her dad's hand) was priceless. It reminded me exactly of how I felt when I ate my first oyster - SO GROSS.

And I do remember my first oyster. I was eight years old. It was on a fourth grade field trip to the Sandy Point State Park's Chesapeake Appreciation Days. All the kids were allowed to try an oyster, and about half did. Of that half, maybe two actually enjoyed it. There was a bit of vomiting that day. Come to think of it, that's a pretty bold field trip activity for a public school to sponsor. Wouldn't ever happen today. But I'm glad it did for me, even if I did spend 20 minutes behind the oyster shack, trying to spit the taste and crazy consistency out of my mouth.

When my brother was two years old, my grandfather fed him his first oyster, in the kitchen of my grandparent's house in Annapolis. It didn't go well, and Grandpa left the mess for my mom to clean up. That was the same grandfather who, about a year later, let my brother stick his hands into a bushel of live crabs. He believed in learning things the hard way, apparently.

In Kitchen Confidential, Anthony Bourdain tells the story of his first oyster, eaten fresh, on a boat in France. He loved it. That is literally the only time I've ever heard of someone loving oysters right away. Even the least skittish, most waterlogged people I know had to grow into their love of the oyster.

But once you can keep them down, you never stop wanting to eat more and more. Unfortunately, that's where I find myself today. Waiting for my next dozen.

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