This post takes its inspiration from M.F.K. Fisher’s “Consider the Oyster” (1941). Fisher, for the uninitiated, is considered to be one of the founders of modern food writing as we know it. She does have some very smart critics, though. Love her or hate her, you can’t deny her influence. Without Fisher, entires genres of food media wouldn’t exist, such as essays that wouldn’t have a point if they weren’t told in the first person. Anyway, I had some oysters recently and thought it would be interesting to not talk in the first person about it. Bon appétit!!!
BEING A MOLLUSC IS HARD
Meet Pat, Pat the oyster. Pat has hundreds of thousands of oyster siblings (his momma got around, OK). He’s just another oyster idiot and he knows it. He has never at any point in his life aspired to change the world, stand out from the crowd, or be a social media influencer because he is just another oyster in a sea full of oysters who all look just like him. He sits around all day ingesting copious amounts of seawater, getting fat, and hoarding sediment, which he uses to gradually build a shell so he can shut himself out from the cruel reality of a world that doesn’t give a damn about bland, personality-less oyster plebs like him.
One day, Pat got a hold of a VHS copy of “Orlando” starring Tilda Swinton that some littering shmuck had tossed into the bay where he lives. Pat put it in his VCR (because Pat is old-school like that) and thoroughly enjoyed the watching the story of a very fancy Elizabethan boy poet who later becomes a very fancy lady extra in “Dangerous Liasons.” And so he decided that he, too, wanted to cast aside his masculine boorishness in favor of coquettish femininity. Plus, he had read something in the New York Times Style section about how transgender is so in. And so he became a she.
She set about becoming the modern-day version of a lady in waiting: she got a Sephora makeover, started a lifestyle blog, and invested in a cute pair of ankle boots. She was proud to have finally distinguished herself from all of her dull siblings who had never achieved anything besides starring in the reality TV show “Shootin’ Shit with the Shellfishes.”
After finally finding a Squarespace template that really spoke to her, Pat went to a networking event for oyster lifestyle bloggers in the hopes of promoting her brand. When she got there, however, she realized that all the other lifestyle bloggers looked like her, talked like her, and drank wine coolers just like her. Except for a few self-anointed oyster lifestyle blogger queens who were extra bitchy and wore pearls to signify their anointed status. Faced with the realization that, regardless of her SEO expertise and many sponsored partnerships, she would never be exceptional, she slunk into the bathroom and cried salty seawater tears in a stall while surreptitiously taking drags off a cigarette she had hidden beneath her shell.
Pat’s life ended after she was plucked out of the water by a day laborer and shipped to a mid-market grocery chain, where she languished next to other unremarkable oysters on a bed of slowly melting ice underneath the glare of unflattering fluorescent lights. May her tragic plight be a reminder that it’s fucking stupid to anthropomorphize a creature that doesn’t even have a brain.
IF IT TASTES FUNNY, IT’S ALREADY TOO LATE
You probably already know that you can get sick or die from eating contaminated oysters. But did you know that there are four different ways that this can happen? Oysters basically spend their lives sucking in the water around them and accumulating any stuff that’s in it. Imagine that you could feed yourself simply by sucking in the air around you, getting fat with each breath you take. It’s kind of like that. Anyway, if oysters are raised in water that contains toxic algae, they can store those toxins in their pudgy little bodies. The oysters don’t get sick, but you sure will. It’s like they’re trying to get payback for being near the bottom of the food chain. Toxins will especially build up if the oyster has been dead for too long before you eat it—you’ll know a really dead one from the way it tastes like a bag of coins left out in the rain. Although perfectly fresh oysters or oysters that have been cooked well can be a ticket to disaster, too, if the bad stuff exists in high enough concentrations. Let’s discover the different ways you can ride the train to oyster hell, each with dire consequences that will make you too afraid to ever indulge at dollar oyster happy hour again.
Diarrhetic: Diarrhetic shellfish poisoning is caused by oxadaic acid. The symptoms are what you’d expect: you shit, you shit, and you shit some more. You might also vom some and get a fever, chills, and aches. Having your butthole turn into a murky, turbo-charged water park might not seem like a fun time, but if you’re gonna get sick from a oyster, this is the way you want it to happen. You’ll eventually stop shitting after a few days and go on with your life—emotionally scarred, for sure, but you’ll be OK.
Amnesic: Say hello to domoic acid and start cursing its name now, because soon enough, this memory robber is gonna wipe your slate clean. With this type of poisoning, you’ll vom and shit for a bit first, which seems bad enough. But then you’ll start to feel confused, maybe have some hallucinations or seizures, and ultimately experience permanent short-term memory loss, because this malevolent thug wages war on your neurons. You might even die. But you’ll probably just spend the rest of your life never quite remembering where you are, how you got there, or what you’re doing with a knife in your hand and your pants at your ankles.
Neurotoxic: You might’ve heard of red tide—no, not in the sense of riding the red tide during certain days of the month. It’s when brevetoxin-producing algae spread like a rash in seawater, killing fish, sea mammals, and plenty of other sea life, but not shellfish! Oysters gobble these algae up like an all-you-can-eat buffet. If you eat an oyster that’s had its share of brevetoxins, you can get neurotoxic shellfish poisoning. There aren’t any known fatalities from NSP, but there are some other effects that sound about as pleasant as being trapped in a torture chamber: in addition to the requisite vom-ing and shitting (you should expect that by now), you’ll start to feel like little oyster sprites are stabbing at your mouth with very sharp pins and needles. You might also be stuck with slurred speech and partial paralysis for a very long time. So yeah, don’t ride the red tide.
Paralytic: This type of poisoning is caused by saxitoxin, which sounds like a good name for a saxophone that plays lethal melodies, but it’s not. The symptoms are similar to NSP (more vom-ing, more shitting, more feeling like you’ve taken a buttload of mescaline), but with an added twist: saxitoxin can cause paralysis of the muscles in your chest, which means you may suffocate to death if you don’t get yourself to a hospital, stat. Basically, it’s the Daenerys of food-borne illness and you are the powerless, enervated shell of Khal Drogo being strangled to death in her grip.
First person to get sick from oysters all four ways that lives to tell the tale gets a prize!
SUNDAY, MONDAY HAPPY DAYS
There is a tradition at girls’ boarding schools in Switzerland that it fondly recalled by many an alumna but scarcely known amongst those who are not of their ranks. It is called “moulding the oyster.” The moulded oyster is a multi-layered concoction that bears resemblance to that of the turducken or the bacon explosion. Yet it predates both of those esteemed dishes by dozens of years.
The moulded oyster’s origin lies in the secret parties of the 1950s that young boarding school ladies held in the stillest hours of the night (ok, it was 10 p.m., but people weren’t exactly having all-night raves back then). These clandestine fetes were an occasion to ask the naughty school maids, who were bribed to stay quiet with lemon candies and cheap perfumes, to fetch for the ladies the foods of their wildest fancies (because this was the 1950s and getting high off Redi-Whip cannisters with your friends wasn’t a thing yet). The maids could only carry so much from the local villages to the dormitories, however. So to keep all the young ladies satiated, they combined all of their requests into a single food mash-up, the creativity of which would make contemporary bakers of macarownies and cupcaketzels green with envy. The most famous of these mashups was the moulded oyster, which deftly interwove tastes both sweet and savory.
To create this supreme delicacy, the maids took a single Lebanese oyster, which was then dipped in a smooth, white blanket of waxy white chocolate ganache, followed by a layer of partridge forcemeat, dunked in a layer of breadcrumbs, deep-fried, then encased in a mound of orange jello. It would then be presented to the ladies on a silver platter for inspection. The head girl (always a Blair Waldorf type) would insert her pinky into the moulded oyster, feeling to make sure that each and every layer was there. Once she deemed it satisfactory, the ladies would take turns gnashing and lapping at the layers with their maws. Sometimes, the maids would hide a pearl in the center. It was believed that any lady who found the pearl would one day be destined to date Kristen Stewart, Cara Delevigne, or another high-profile LA celesbian.
Nowadays, if you are not a fifteen-year-old future woman leader of the world attending an elite Swiss boarding school, the best place to find moulded oysters is in the cabin of a disheveled witch (a former Blair Waldorf type) near the base of the Matterhorn. She guards her recipe closely and also keeps an impressive collection of headbands.