"There's nothing in Christianity or Buddhism that quite matches the sympathetic unselfishness of an oyster."

"An oyster
is a fish
built like a nut"


"I will not eat oysters. I want my food dead--not sick, not wounded--dead."
--Woody Allen

"Oysters are not really food, but are relished to bully the sated stomach into further eating."

Oysters we ate,
sweet blue babies,
twelve eyes looked up at me,
running with lemon and Tabasco.
I was afraid to eat this father-food
and Father laughed and drank down his martini,
clear as tears.
It was a soft medicine
that came from the sea into my mouth,
moist and plump.
I swallowed.
It went down like a large pudding.
Then I ate one o'clock and two o'clock.
Then I laughed and then we laughed
and let me take note --
there was a death,
the death of childhood
there at the Union Oyster House
for I was fifteen
and eating oysters
and the child was defeated.
The woman won.

--from "Death of the Fathers, 1. Oysters" by Anne Sexton

"He had often eaten oysters, but had never had enough."
--W.S. Gilbert

"At the end of a sentence I call for tea
At the end of a paragraph, bread and b.
At the end of a page, chip potatoes and hake
At the end of a chapter, fillet steak
But ah! when I finish the ultimate line
When I've brought to fulfillment the grand design
When I look at the thing and it's mine, all mine
Then it's Oysters, my love, with Cold White Wine!

--Jan Morris in Writers' Favourite Recipes (1978)

"An oyster lives a dreadful but exciting life. Indeed, his chance to live at all is slim, and if he should survive the arrows of his own outrageous fortune and in the two weeks of his youth find a clean smooth place to fix on, the years afterwards are full of stress, passion and danger."
--M.F.K. Fisher in Consider the Oyster (1941)

"Some o' them Dorchester County watermen anchor off the bow, but here in Talbot, we mostly anchor off the stern. Catch more arsters that way."
--from The Oystermen of the Chesapeake (1970)

"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 answer there came none--
And this was scarcely odd because
They'd eaten every one.

--Lewis Carroll in Through the Looking Glass

"As I ate the oysters with their strong taste of the sea and their faint metallic taste that the cold white wine washed away, leaving only the sea taste and the succulent texture, and as I drank their cold liquid from each shell and washed it down with the crisp taste of the wine, I lost the empty feeling [from finishing a story] and began to be happy and to make plans.
--Ernest Hemingway in A Moveable Feast.

"Although there were no oysters in the region [pays bigouden, Finistere, Brittany, in France], we did know they existed, and not too far away. Yet we had never seen any. Much later on, there was a doctor's maid who reported to her master in a rage: 'What wrong did you do to Monsieur N?" He sent you a package of stones to make fun of you!' The stones were oysters, and the good woman had thrown them into the manure heap. It was the doctor himself who told me the story. The strangest part of it was that, at the time, even he hadn't known what those particular stones were. One karabasenn, or priest's housekeeper, had been more conscientious. She had undertaken to break the stones in question in order to see what was inside. Shortly afterward, the rector saw her appear, with a disgusted look on her face, carrying a large bowl into which she had poured the slimy creatures, like so many eggs about to be beaten into an omelet. Another karabasenn did quite the opposite. She served the empty shells during a 'pardon' meal to which a half-dozen clergymen had been invited. And when the rector glanced at her in amazement, she cried out, sorely offended: 'Well, what about it? I took their bowels out, didn't I?'"
--Pierre-Jakez Helias in The Horse of Pride: Life in a Breton Village

"The deep sea suckled me, the waves sounded over me; rollers were my coverlet as I rested on my bed. I have no feet and frequently open my mouth to the flood. Sooner or later some man will consume me, who cares nothing for my shell. With the point of his knife he will pierce me through, ripping the skin away from my side, and straight away eat me uncooked as I am...
--Riddle number 77, in the Old English Exeter Book, first made public in 1072 by Leofric, first Bishop of Exeter. The answer is "An Oyster."

I like to eat an uncooked oyster.
Nothing's slicker, nothing's moister.
Nothing's easier on your gorge
Or when the time comes, to dischorge.
But not to let it too long rest
Within your mouth is always best.
For if your mind dwells on an oyster. . .
Nothing's slicker. Nothing's moister.

I prefer my oyster fried.
Then I'm sure my oyster's died.

--Roy Blount, Jr.

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(Ostrea edulis and others)

Contributed in part by Ilene Polansky,
owner of Maestro S.V.P.--Seafood Bistro and Oyster Bar,
Montreal, Quebec


Oysters have, apparently, always been linked with love. When Aphrodite, the Greek goddess of love, sprang forth from the sea on an oyster shell and promptly gave birth to Eros, the word "aphrodisiac" was born. Centuries later, Casanova himself would start a meal eating 12 dozen oysters--no doubt fortifying himself for the evening's pleasures.

At the same time, oysters appeared during the Triassic period--some 200 million years ago--and have been an important food source since Neolithic times. Eighteenth century British playwright John Gay speculates,

"The man sure had a palate covered o'er
With brass or steel, that on the rocky shore
First broke the oozy oyster's pearly coat,
And risked the living morsel down his throat."

The ancient Chinese raised oysters artificially, in ponds. In 320 B.C., Aristotle made a stab at how they generated, writing in his Historia Animalium that oysters came forth from slime via a process of spontaneous generation. Even at that time, Greeks served them with wine, and the Romans were so enthusiastic about these marvelous mollusks that they sent thousands of slaves to the shores of the English Channel to gather them. Roman emperors paid for them by their weight in gold.

In times past, a common rule of thumb was to eat oysters only in months that had an "R" in their name--that is, during cold weather. Happily, with modern refrigeration techniques, the danger of decay and food poisoning is nil. Today, oysters can be and are shipped and eaten year round.

There are hundreds of varieties, each with distinctive characteristics. (At any given time, Maestro S.V.P.'s oyster bar carries at least fifteen different varieties.)


There are three broad classifications: Pacific, Atlantic and Olympia. Each is further broken down to the very shore from which they are harvested. So some geography is needed:
  1. The Pacific: Originally from Japan, the Pacific oyster is the most widely cultured oyster in the world. It's creamier than the Atlantic oyster--tasting of minerals, very oceany versus the Atlantic oyster where you can taste the saltiness of the ocean. It is sold under a variety of names, usually denoting particular peoples or growing areas.
    One example is the Kumamoto. In 1568 Job Hortop set down in the Gulf of Mexico and wrote of " oysters growing on trees." The story goes that spat (baby oysters) clung in bunches to trees on the water's edge. The oysters were alternately covered in water or left high and dry, with the tide, thus encouraging them to grow well. That is why they are believed to be so small. This oyster has a buttery finish. It is known as a "beginner's oyster" because of its small size and mild taste-- and is one of the best sellers at the resto.
    Another Pacific oyster is a Samish Bay with a crisp full taste with lots of meat because of its full cup. Others include Steamboats, Pearl Bay, Malaspina, Royal Myiagi, each with a different finish from very creamy to metallic to just a hint of salt or nuts.

  2. The Atlantic: There are many varieties of Atlantic oysters, such as Malpeque, Caraquet, Blue point, Pine Island, Pugwash, etc...Each oyster has its degree of salt taste. Some customers prefer the Malpeque to a Caraquet just because it is a saltier oyster. Some like the Pine Island because it has a fruity finish, and some prefer a Pemequid because of its almond finish. [The so-called American oyster, Crassotrea Virginica Gmelin is found on America's East Coast, from the Gulf of St. Lawrence to the Gulf of Mexico as far south as Panama, and in the West Indies.]

  3. The Olympia (Ostrea lurida): Native to the Pacific coast, this oyster is found primarily in Washington's Puget sound. It is very small, seldom exceeding 2 inches. It has a very full flavor with a distinct aftertaste. It was a great favorite with Gold Rush San Francisco.


In the immortal words of Henry Ward Beecher, "An oyster, that marvel of delicacy, that concentration of sapid excellence, that mouthful before all other mouthfuls, who first had faith to believe it, and courage to execute? The exterior is not persuasive."

Moreover, there is no way of telling male oysters from females by examining those unpersuasive exteriors. While oysters have separate sexes, they may change sex one or more times during their life span--being true hermaphrodites. The gonads--organs responsible for producing both eggs and sperm--surround the digestive organs and are made up of sex cells, branching tubules and connective tissue.

"The oyster's a confusing suitor
It's masc., and fem., and even neuter.
But whether husband, pal or wife
It leads a painless sort of life.
I'd like to be an oyster, say,
In August, June, July or May"
--Ogden Nash (1931)
This member of the bivalve family also has well developed digestive, circulatory, respiratory, excretory, and nervous systems. They can be expected to live from 10 to 20 years, but stop growing at about 5 years old.

How do they breathe? Much like fish, using both gills and mantle. The mantle is lined with many small, thin-walled blood vessels which extract oxygen from the water and expel carbon dioxide. A small, three-chambered heart, lying under the adductor muscle, pumps colorless blood, with its supply of oxygen, to all parts of the body. At the same time a pair of kidneys located on the underside of the muscle purify the blood of any waste products it has collected.

What about their nutritional value? Actually, oysters are not only delicious, they are also one of the most nutritionally well balanced of foods, containing protein, carbohydrates and lipids. In fact, the National Heart and Lung Institute suggest oysters as an ideal food to be included in low-cholesterol diets.

Oysters are an excellent source of vitamins A, B1 (thiamin), B2 (riboflavin), B3 (niacin), C (ascorbic acid), and D (calciferol).

Four or five medium size oysters supply the recommended daily allowance of iron, copper, iodine, magnesium, calcium, zinc, manganese, and phosphorus.

What is that tiny crab that's occasionally found inside an oyster? It is a species of crab (Pinnotheres ostreum) that has evolved to live harmoniously with an oyster inside its shell. Not being abundant, it is much sought after by gourmets.

And how do pearls end up inside of oysters? An oyster produces a pearl when foreign material is trapped inside the shell. The oyster responds to the irritation by producing nacre, a combination of calcium and protein. The nacre coats the foreign material and over time produces a pearl.


Champagne is the perfect marriage but not the only marriage. Beyond expensive, there are many options. A bottle of Muscadet is a choice that can't go wrong. I'd also suggest a Riesling from Alsace, which is bone dry--or a Chardonnay, whether Californian, French or Australian but particularly the rich wood flavor of the Napa family or Australian wines. Remember that you are trying to find a wine that can embrace and enrich the bracing taste of sea, salt, and mineral. That said, a tall glass of Spanish dry sherry is perfect with all shellfish , especially oysters. And then there's...


This drink has become very popular in my restaurants and especially at the events we do throughout the summer months. Take an oyster, put it in a shot glass, add a little cocktail sauce, fresh horseradish and jalapeno vodka. You then drink it like a shooter. It is a very refreshing treat.


Oysters au natural are best served simply with crushed ice and seaweed. Fresh lemon juice or Worcestershire sauces are both good accompaniments. That is the exact ways we serve them. There are two classes of sauce to be served with oysters. The first is mignonette sauce with shallots and red wine vinegar, and the second is a chili sauce.

The best and easiest oyster to open is a choice Malpeque or Caraquet. It is always uniform in size, round and plump. This makes it a lot easier for a beginner. I would suggest 1 1/2 dozens per person. Have lots of lemons cut in quarters or--what I love to do at events, which is fun--take a whole lemon, roll it on a table to loosen the juice and poke a hole on the top part. This makes a real lemon squeezer. You should have plenty of Tabasco sauce or any hot sauce. And a classic sauce of finely cut pieces of shallots in red wine vinegar and a little lemon juice.