The eighth of February, 2011: he was a bold man that first ate an oyster

To Whitby, North Yorkshire, and – at Green’s – my first fresh oysters. We had only a handful (enough to pique my interest if not to win me over completely): one I gulped down raw; the other three were spiced with ginger, soy and spring onion, a tomato salsa, and a smoked-salmon sauce.

These were, we were told, Scottish oysters – and so, I suppose, Pacific Oysters (Crassotrea gigas), the sort that grow to a huge size and get whipped into oyster sauce, rather than the endangered native oyster (Ostrea edulis), which are rarely eaten nowadays (a good thing, all in all, of course, as no-one wants to hasten the extinction of the oyster on which (for instance) Whitstable’s Dickensian oyster fisheries were founded, and with which many an East End beef pie was shored up, such was the oyster’s abundance (it must have seemed to Londoners that no amount of gorging could make a dent in such a prolific population, still less whittle it down to a vestige; trigger-happy Americans must have felt the same way about the buffalo and the passenger pigeon) – but then I expect there is a certain frisson achieved in sitting down to a plate of critically endangered species, as anyone who has suppered on flank of panda will no doubt attest).

Here’s Alan Davidson, Oxford Companion to Food (OUP, 2006):

oyster of all marine molluscs the most prized and, until it was overtaken by the mussel, the most cultivated… Oyster cookery flourished on both sides of the Atlantic in the 19th century, when oysters were plentiful and cheap in both Britain and N. America. Dishes such as oyster stews and soups, fried oysters, oysters on skewers with bits of bacon, and oyster fritters were common. But supplies began to dwindle in the 20th century and, as they became less common and more expensive, oysters were more likely to eaten raw on the half-shell. Nonetheless, some luxury oyster dishes have survived, for example Oysters Bienville and Oysters Rockefeller, both with origins in New Orleans.

Here’s The Silver Spoon cookbook (Phaidon, 2006), on serving raw oysters on the half-shell:

Provide your guests with suitable metal forks to remove the oysters from the half-shells, bearing in mind that silver forks will turn black. According to connoiseurs, oysters should be eaten raw without any dressing or, at most, with a small dash of lemon juice. Some accept combining them with slices of light buttered rye bread.

Why will silver forks turn black? I’m not sure, and neither is the internet. Possibly something to do with the sulphur in the oyster.

Here’s Lewis Carroll:

“O Oysters,” said the Carpenter,

“You’ve had a pleasant run!

Shall we be trotting home again?”

But answer came there none—

And this was scarcely odd, because

They’d eaten every one.

That’s from ‘The Walrus And The Carpenter’ (from Through The Looking Glass), of course. Here it is in full. And here’s Disney’s version.

Today’s Clutterbuck title comes from Jonathan Swift’s Polite Conversation (1738ish). Swift referred several times in his poems and prose to the Billingsgate oyster-mongers, coining as he did so the word ‘oyster-strumpet’ (‘Methinks I hear thee loud as trumpet,/As bagpipe shrill or oyster-strumpet’ in ‘Political Poems’).

As a matter of minuscule linguistic interest, I think both Billingsgate and oyster-strumpet would be strong contenders for the post of my favourite oyster-related word, were it not for the verb shuck.

Anyway: the Green’s oysters were very good. We, too, trotted home again. We had eaten every one.

“A loaf of bread,” the Walrus said,
“Is what we chiefly need:
Pepper and vinegar besides
Are very good indeed–
Now if you’re ready, Oysters dear,
We can begin to feed.”

“But not on us!” the Oysters cried,
Turning a little blue.
“After such kindness, that would be
A dismal thing to do!”
“The night is fine,” the Walrus said.
“Do you admire the view?

“It was so kind of you to come!
And you are very nice!”
The Carpenter said nothing but
“Cut us another slice:
I wish you were not quite so deaf–
I’ve had to ask you twice!”

“It seems a shame,” the Walrus said,
“To play them such a trick,
After we’ve brought them out so far,
And made them trot so quick!”
The Carpenter said nothing but
“The butter’s spread too thick!”

“I weep for you,” the Walrus said:
“I deeply sympathize.”
With sobs and tears he sorted out
Those of the largest size,
Holding his pocket-handkerchief
Before his streaming eyes.

“O Oysters,” said the Carpenter,
“You’ve had a pleasant run!
Shall we be trotting home again?’
But answer came there none–
And this was scarcely odd, because
They’d eaten every one.

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