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Monday, March 23, 2009

Consider the Oyster: A Frugal Splurge in Baton Rouge

A post from my dear Frugal Son that has been sitting around for a while. After he sent this, I lent him MFK Fisher's wonderful "The Art of Eating," which contains her essay "Consider the Oyster." Enjoy!

As much as I may have sounded anti-restaurant in my previous posts, I'm really not. My main feeling is that people eat too much at restaurants, a habit which is not only expensive but also renders the experience of eating at a restaurant banal and makes it lose the special allure that comes with rarity. Just to prove that I am not on some sort of anti-restaurant crusade, I am looking forward to eating lunch at the très cher Restaurant August click here if you want to check out the menu) in New Orleans for my 20th birthday next week. Even though the lunch will probably cost over $60 per person, I think it is worth it because I have only ever had one other truly "fine-dining" experience—lunch at the famous Commander's Palace with my grandparents—and food is something that I am willing to splurge on every now and then.

While a restaurant like August is truly for the rare occasion, there are other ways of eating out that can fit on any budget. In South Louisiana, food is a huge part of the culture and one food that I only eat at restaurants is oysters on the half shell. My first experience with oysters was at a tender age—maybe 10 or 11 years old—at some sort of community event, a farmers market I think, in my hometown. Acme, the famous New Orleans oyster house, had a huge pirogue filled with fresh oysters and they were shucking them on demand for people to sample. I have always been pretty adventurous with food so I immediately wanted to try one. My father's parents were in town so as I waited in line, I asked my Nana for advice on how to eat an oyster. She told me "you don't really chew it that much and just kind of let it slide down your throat." With complete trust in Nana, I followed her advice to the letter and nearly gagged on the silver dollar sized oyster as I tried to swallow it sans mastication. Needless to say, I was off oysters for the next half decade after this harrowing experience. Unlike Anthony Bourdain, my moment of food enlightenment did not come after slurping down a raw bivalve.

Years later, I'm not exactly sure when, I decided to give raw oysters a shot again. I had eaten and loved fried oysters, oyster stew, grilled oysters, and smoked oysters in oil so, pushing the memories of my past experience behind me, I decided to try again to add raw oysters to my repertoire. Before Acme sold-out and moved to a plastic location off of a highway and next to Wal-Mart, there was an Acme Oyster House within walking distance of my house in a nice brick building in the small downtown area. Every Thursday they offered half-off oysters (only a quarter a piece) so one day, my dad and I went to get some oysters. My father offered much clearer instructions for consuming oysters, although he did pepper his directions with such helpful tips as "they are still alive when you eat them" and "if you squeeze lemon on them sometimes you can see them move." Unfazed, I ordered a dozen for myself and after some lingering trepidation at the thought of my last attempt, slurped one down and finally appreciated the briny beauty of a fresh oyster.

Several years and several hundred oysters later, I'm still a fan and avid eater of oysters on the half-shell. Although the prices have gone up in the years since Hurricane Katrina decimated the oyster beds, there are still deals to be had and a night of bivalve enjoyment can be had for less than an hour’s worth of work at my minimum wage on-campus job. My only regular dining out experiences in college are the monthly excursions to The Chimes, a bar / restaurant just outside the North Gates of campus, for oysters. If you arrive before 7 pm, The Chimes offers half-price (thirty-five cents per piece) oysters freshly shucked on the half-shell. Despite living in Louisiana, few of my friends like or are willing to try oysters, but those of us who do enjoy oysters have formed a sort of social eating club and every month or so, we go to the Chimes to relax and try some tasty morsels straight from Gulf.

My most recent outing was particularly pleasurable because in addition to my regular oyster companion Daniel, we were joined by a neighbor and friend from high school (pre-residential high school days so this goes way back) as well as her sister, and her sister's co-worker who were in town working on the set of a movie being filmed in Baton Rouge (the movie is called The Chameleon and it is based on the true story of a guy who would impersonate missing children and actually live with and convince the families that he was really their child!).

When we first arrived at The Chimes it was quite crowded because an apparently popular band (Red Jumpsuit Apparatus? Heard of them anyone?) was playing at The Varsity theatre next door. After a brief wait (during which I was surprised by none other than the beloved Dr. Pat, executive director of my life-changing residential high school), we were directed to our booth and greeted by our waitress (who turned out to have been a junior while I was a senior at my beloved high school…what a small world!). Since we all came to The Chimes with a single-minded desire for oysters, we skipped the menus and ordered six dozen for the table. The wait for the oysters was about 15 minutes—they have to shuck each one by hand on demand—but I didn't mind because the conversation was very interesting. My friend Maggie's sister was in charge of artwork on the set of the movie and they had a lot of cool stories to tell about the industry or funny things that had happened on the job. Before our oysters arrived, they brought out small plates with the essential oyster eating accoutrements: saltines, horseradish and lemon. Tabasco, as always, was already on the table in both original and mild green varieties.

The oysters arrived, plump and slightly pinkish, each a gleaming jewel nestled in its own faintly pearlescent throne and swimming in a little pool of its own liquor. Each dozen shells were arranged in a ring on a platter so the table quickly became crowded with plates and elbows jostled against each other as everyone jockeyed to grab the first bite. I have developed a routine when it comes to eating oysters and one of the most important parts of my routine is slurping the first oyster straight from the shell with absolutely nothing on it to change the taste. Each batch of oysters has a unique flavor depending on all sorts of variables and I think it is important to get an unimpeded taste of the day's particular flavor. On this particular day, the oysters actually had a relatively mild flavor with neither the iodine brininess nor the sweetness of previous batches. Not the best bunch of oysters I've ever had but good nonetheless and the company more than made up for it.

After my initial taste of garnish-free oyster, I transition to the next part of the routine, which usually entails spreading some horseradish on a saltine, putting the oyster on top, and then squeezing a bit of lemon on. This is the standard combination in my arsenal because it adds so many layers of flavor without overwhelming the oyster. The saltine lends a bit of salt to the mix and its satisfying crunch is a good counterpoint to the soft consistency of oyster. The lemon cleanses my palate with a refreshing burst of citrus and a nice sour note before the horseradish slowly builds from a low murmur on my tongue to a pleasant climax of heat in my nose. Among all these competing flavors, however, the oyster reigns supreme and it is the flavor of the oyster that, in the end, comes through to finish out this extraordinary one bite act.

An interesting side-note: the traditional garnishments for oysters (horseradish and lemon) are surprisingly similar to those of another culture's raw seafood tradition. Sushi is eaten with wasabi, a type of horseradish, and pickled ginger; I always find it fascinating (and somehow comforting) when two totally separate cultures somehow end up coming with very similar methods for eating and serving food.
Of course I'm not a total slave to habit. Sometimes I leave off the cracker and apply the horseradish and lemon directly to the oyster in its shell. Other times I skip the horseradish completely to focus on the lemon flavors and vice versa. Every now and then I'll add a dash of Tabasco for a different, lingering heat from that of the horseradish or even a few drops of Worcestershire sauce for a tangy and sweet flavor. Over the next ten oysters, the meat of my routine, I prepare my oysters in a variety of ways until the very last one. In eating, as in writing, I find symmetry a pleasing way of structuring things so I always eat my final oyster the same way I started: straight from the shell with no additions so the flavor lingers with me.

As the meal wound down I felt content and at ease; the combination of good food and good conversation lured me into a postprandial daze. We settled the bill and said our goodbyes outside where the sudden jolt of cold crept through the warmth we carried from inside and forced us to hurry our separate ways.

Sometimes something as simple as an oyster can take an ordinary night and turn it into a pearl.

The Breakdown:
A dozen oysters, saltine crackers, and other garnishes: $4.20
Tax: $0.42
Tip (since it was a friend from high school I tipped more): $2.08
Total: $6.70

So, Dear Readers, what simple foods do you enjoy that seem to heighten the pleasure of eating with friends?


Duchesse said...

Whoo-hoo! I'm jealous that you can get oysters so cheaply, here a deal would be a buck apiece! Which might explain PJ O'ROurke's comment, "Never eat oysters in months without any money in them".

Frugal Scholar said...

@Duchesse--Well, we have cheap oysters and shrimp. You have health care for all.

Chance said... little schtinker -- now I am craving oysters in a place devoid of fresh ones. My personal rule: never eat raw shellfish more than 50 miles from the ocean. This has served me well all over the world, never gotten food poisoning etc from raw shellfish.

Oysters -- one of the things I gave up when I moved to Vermont. Fabulous post as ever (but did you *have* to linger over the lush descriptions of flavors and the resonant overtones of heat and salt and crunch?)

You take pleasure in creating your enticing word pictures knowning that ocean loving Chance is craving the taste of the sea, right now...ah, but we have fiddleheads. Backatcha next week with my description of fiddleheads in garlic buttah, the essential elements of spring arriving on your chlorophyll starved taste buds...and so forth. Fabulous post, thanks.

SLF said...

@Duchesse: After looking at oyster prices elsewhere I've realized how truly cheap they are here! I chuckled aloud at that O' Rourke comment.

@Chance: Thanks, as always for your wonderful and encouraging comments. MFK Fisher had a wonderful little passage in her book "Consider the Oyster" about early Midwestern settlers paying exorbitant prices to have live oysters brought via train (or maybe even covered wagon?) once per year! Makes me feel almost gluttonous to eat them once or so per month.

I can't wait to hear about your fiddleheads! That's right up my alley as both a localvore delight and something that one can gather in the urban--or semi-urban at least--jungle.

--Frugal Son

Mary said...

Yum - I love fresh, raw oysters! Not something I get to indulge in often here in West Texas but I sure 'em when I come across them! They are certainly a lot more expensive when I find them!