One of my favorite childhood memories is of running to the dinner table and seeing it scattered with huge oval serving platters stacked high with freshly fried crappie, piles of golf ball-sized hush puppies and bowlfuls of deep red Creole sauce with curvaceous shrimp bodies bobbing flirtatiously as if they knew they were my favorite. On extra special occasions there would be a plate of fried oysters for my father and, like any young man not yet old enough to have his first pube emerge, I liked whatever my father liked—this was especially true for fried oysters.
One fateful day, however, I was robbed of the pleasure of enjoying these briny bivalves for many years to come due to an oyster wardrobe malfunction. In the process of transporting one of these fried morsels from plate to mouth, the breading slipped off like a cheap prom dress and I was face to face with what looked like something I had seen a chain smoker cough up on the sidewalk. My 8-year-old mind was so traumatized by that visual assault I spent the next 10 years foolishly turning away these gifts from the sea.
Through my twenties and thirties, I grew to tolerate oysters. On the rare occasion I was offered one it almost always came as a challenge that I would take on in the manliest of fashion—with copious amounts of horseradish, cocktail sauce, lemon and a very quick gulp as to minimize any oyster to tongue contact.
Then something magical happened. Maybe it was the development of my aging taste buds, the quality of the oysters on this particular night, or perhaps the hypnotic gaze and soothing décolletage of my brunette dining companion, but one night at a beachside seafood shack I fell in love with raw oysters. With just a squirt of lemon and a splash of hot sauce, these tender beauties tasted like a sweet bite of the sea and I was completely hooked.
But being an oyster lover in Chattanooga is like having a Thai ladyboy fetish in North Georgia. So when I saw that Easy Bistro & Bar sells gulf oysters for 25 cents each on Thursdays, I rounded up a couple dozen fellow oyster lovers and we descended on the place like a plague of hungry locusts. Easy Bistro is a somewhat upscale dining restaurant located downtown in the building that once housed the world’s first Coca-Cola bottling plant. The menu reflects their urban, fine dining setting with items like duck confit, black truffle risotto, and Coquilles St. Jacques, but we were there for the oysters and the oysters were there for us.
The taste of a chilled raw oyster is like a mouthful of ocean air. The tiny bit of seawater lingering in the shell (referred to as the “liquor”) is a natural complement to the distinctive flavor of the oyster itself. They’re light, but substantial; briny but not fishy. I recommend going commando and eating them with just a splash of lemon, but there’s no shame in adding a dab of horseradish, cocktail sauce or hot sauce, either.
Like sushi, eating raw oysters has an element of ritual that is part of the satisfaction of the experience. First, detach the oyster from the shell and make sure it’s completely detached by moving it around slightly in its shell. Raise the shell to your lips with the thinnest edge of the shell facing outward (to make it easier to slurp the oyster), tilt your head back and suck the oyster and the juice into your mouth, chew briefly, and swallow. I will now pause to give you the opportunity to make your favorite “That’s what she said” joke.
I fully understand that oysters are not for everyone. But if you get that tingly feeling as your oyster craving rises, you can rest easy knowing that Chattanooga has places like Easy Bistro to help you get your bivalve on.
Mike McJunkin cooks better than you and eats quite a lot of very strange food. Visit his Facebook page (Sushi and Biscuits) for updates and recipes.