That’s not a phrase you want to hear from the man handing you a plate of raw oysters.
In fact, I’m not sure why he said it. Did he have a sudden vision, a hazy premonition of one sodden author – me – keeled over a toilet with gut-wrenching case of food poisoning? Did I look especially clumsy, the type of guy that accidentally impales himself with sharp, unimpressive objects?
Or maybe he sensed, somehow, that this was my first raw oyster, that the carnal pleasures sure to follow would overwhelm my meager collection of inexperienced synapses. I know I felt like it was prom night all over again.
The two hipsters in faux-Bermuda shorts on the far right held up the line forever.
And truth be told, I couldn’t have picked a better place to pop my oyster cherry then “the Wharf” in DC. An open air fish market has existed in some form or another in southwest DC since the 1800s. Of course, thanks to various urban renewal efforts, it now resembles a grungy strip mall rather than a classic institution, with gaudy sea blue metal false fronts and generously poured cement. But all the better, I say. It keeps the hipsters at bay, as the patrons are there for one thing and one thing only: kick ass fresh seafood at great prices.
Most opt for the live crabs, though the stalls are stocked with a colorful array of aquatic delicacies, from pink salmon to blue fish. Jessie Taylor Seafood’s raw bar, too, with clams and ubiquitous oysters, is always jam-packed on weekends.
His job might not be hell, but it certainly ain’t heaven, neither.
Honestly, if anyone needed an admonishing to “be careful”, it was the lone guy shucking my oysters. A stocky black man in a purple apron, he spent hours shucking to order in the muggy DC afternoon. That meant placing the iced oysters on a wood “cracker”, striking the end of the shells with a hammer to break off the bills, and then cutting the oysters open with a small, very sharp knife. Over and over again. It’s not easy job, especially in the market’s depressed pit, the customers towering over you and watching your every move like it’s Shakespeare.
Needless to say, the line progressed slowly, Smokey Robinson and the Miracles crooning over the speakers.
I swear I didn’t use any seasoning. That was the remains of my girlfriend’s oyster.
My paper plate of oysters was handed up with a slice of lemon, and old bay and hot sauce was within easy reach. Some dressed the oysters in spices and condiments with an almost religious reverence. I decided to dive in “naked”, plastic fork in hand to loosen it all up.
Slurp. It was amazing.
Salty, buttery, even zesty – raw oysters pack a punch. Why you’d want to douse the natural flavor with cheap hot sauce is beyond me. The texture, somewhat “elastic”, takes getting used to, but all the hot sauce in the world won’t change that. You have to learn to love the oyster. It’s an entire marine ecosystem in a single, delicious bite.
Admittedly, I’m a neophyte to good food. I was raised on a fattening diet of Pop-Tarts, frozen hamburgers, bologna, and Wonder Bread. Some fine dining still strikes me as ludicrous. A tiny morsel of generic tuna steak served up at some Ikea-themed restaurant for well over $20 a pop? I don’t get it.
But raw oysters? Sign me up. I’m converted.
This is my greasy, parched oyster face.