Food & Drink, Food Comment

How we learned to stop worrying and love the oyster

“He was a bold man who first ate an oyster” –  Jonathan Swift

I like to imagine that moment when someone first ate an oyster. “Look at this ugly gray rock”, homo erectus would have said, “I am going to crack it open and eat whatever I find inside.” My guess is that he was probably very hungry, maybe the wooly mammoth hunt had gone badly that day or maybe the gatherers had come back empty handed. Then I imagine my ancestor using a rock or pointed stick to pry the ugly shell open. Much to his chagrin, instead of finding a tasty piece of meat inside, he finds this weird, grey, slimy amorphous mass. The pangs in his stomach or his innate curiosity over-ruled his newly developed ability to reason as he lifted this shell to his lips and slurped the salty creature down. “Delicious”, he thought as he ran back to the cave to tell his tribe, “all this needs is a squeeze of lemon or a little mignonette.” And so the oyster bar was invented and all the hipster Neanderthals with their ironic glasses and plaid loin cloths flocked to enjoy this new treat.

But seriously, humans have been eating oysters for a very long time. There is evidence of oyster consumption in prehistoric times. The Romans were particularly fond of them and cultivated oyster beds. Oysters are eaten from Ireland to China to Australia and back. But just not in Winnipeg.

I grew up with smoked oysters being a staple of my mother’s fancy dinner parties. Before guests arrived she would put out a bowl of olives and a bowl of smoked oysters. You would pick them up with frilly toothpicks and eat them on the ubiquitous Triscuit crackers.  I was well into my twenties before I tried a live oyster. I was in Vancouver visiting my brother-in-law. We were at the market on Granville Island, when he says, “try this.” He hands me an oyster on the half shell and a wedge of lemon. I dutifully squeeze the lemon and slurp the oyster back. I was kind of grossed out by it, not the taste but the gloopy texture. But my mama raised me right, so I thanked my brother-in –law and pretended I liked it.  So, I was given another one. This second oyster was fantastic! I loved it and I immediately understood what all the fuss was about. In such a small morsel was packed so many layers of flavour: briny, sweet, fruity. And I, for the first time, felt the little buzz of energy you get from eating live oysters.

I’ve been in the restaurant business for a long time. In this time I have seen many restaurants try to sell oysters. Chefs love them; we will gobble them up by the dozens. I have seen restaurants dedicate sections of their lounges to be oyster bars; I have seen them appear on menus and quickly disappear.  I have tried putting them on menus numerous times, only to have them languish in my cooler, unwanted and unloved. Even at Bistro 7 ¼ I tried to sell them a number of times. I even had a duet on the menu with a cooked, rockafeller style oyster paired with a raw live oyster. I thought that this would be a good way to introduce my fellow prairie dwellers to the joy of live oysters. Nope.

But suddenly, oysters have caught on! It has been just in the past year that people have really started ordering and enjoying oysters. Now I can’t even keep them in stock. Two restaurants I know, Peasant Cookery and The Lobby on York, are doing buck-a-shuck night and are packed. I remember one day when the Chef from the lobby called me and asked if I had any oysters to spare, he had sold 1500 oysters that night.   Last week I had five different types of oysters in house and I sold them all.  Finally, Winnipeg has caught on to oysters.

There are some very good reasons for us to enjoy oysters. Apart from the fact that they are tasty, the first reason is that they are nutritious. Oysters contain high levels of iron, calcium, vitamin A and B12 and are low in calories. Oysters, long considered an aphrodisac, have been show to be rich in amino acids which boost your sex hormones and zinc which increases testosterone. The other good reason to enjoy oysters is that they are always on the top of everyone’s sustainable seafood list.  Not only are they generally farmed responsibly, but they actually clean the water they are farmed in. They eat the ammonia and nitrate compounds that damage our aquatic eco-systems. Probably the best reason to enjoy oysters in the prairies, is that they are one of the easiest seafood items to ship. Kept cold, oysters can live happily out of the water for up to four weeks, so they will survive the journey from either coast quite easily. So, if you haven’t already, I would encourage you to get out and try some oysters. Learn to shuck your own, they are a super cool way to start any dinner or cocktail party.

I wish I understood why tastes change. If I could predict the change in people’s food preferences I could be a very rich man. But as a chef, I have been able to observe peoples changing palette. We have started loving dark roast coffee; people are eating interesting and stinky cheeses; we went from iceberg to romaine to mesclun and now back to iceberg. People are loving duck when we used to sell nothing but chicken. I don’t know if prairie folk are becoming more sophisticated diners, but there does seem to be a willingness to try new things. And when you try new things, sometimes you like them.


Alexander Svenne is the food writer for Spectator Tribune and chef at Bistro 7 1/4. Follow him at @ChefAlex

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