Evening had fallen on the South Koster island, the westermost settled area in Sweden. The Hotel Ekenäs had prepared a special treat for its guests in the bar: fresh oysters that had been in the ocean just hours before, now arranged on platters, near the pool table, awaiting shucking. I wandered over to have a look, and the delicate young blonde woman who arranged the oysters offered to show me how to do it. Or, I should say one way to do it, there are many different ways, apparently, to shuck an oyster.
I am right handed, so I put a glove on my left hand. I selected an oyster that just about filled the palm of my hand. I placed the slightly more curved side down, and closed my fingers around its bony calcified shell.
With my right hand, I inserted the knife into the small hinge of the oyster. (The narrow end of the oyster, just past its hinge, is called its beak, the broad end, its bill.) I was tempted to use my right hand to apply force. But no, this is not right, and in fact it’s quite dangerous, because your dominant hand can drive the knife right past the oyster and into the meat of your palm. Once the knife is properly inserted into the hinge, I used the fingers of my left hand, wrapped around on the dull end of the knife, to apply the pressure to the shell, and used my right hand to slightly twist. It’s not easy, and in fact, I can’t think of another time that I’ve used my hand in just this way.
After a while, the shell is loosened, and carefully, you insert the knife to separate the adductor muscle. And then remove the top shell, tip it back and eat. It apparently takes oyster shucker pros mere seconds to perform all these tasks (minus the eating), it took me about five minutes.
Other people were learning to shuck oysters once I was finished, so I watched them, sipping on a Swedish version of champagne. I was marveling at how hard it was to open up the shell, and I heard the young delicate blonde woman explained that the oyster was fighting against the knife, exerting some enormous amount of pressure. I knew, of course, that these were fresh oysters, which means that they hadn’t been cooked, but some part of me had forgotten that that rocky shell that I was just prying at with a knife had in fact been alive until the moment I ended it and slurped it down.
And then I wondered when, exactly, it was that the oyster died. Was it only when I swallowed it? I asked the blonde and she said it was when I separated the muscle from the shell, a relatively easy motion, in fact, the easiest part of the whole oyster shucking business. This is a widely held belief, that when the muscle is severed, the oyster is finished. Apparently, however, this isn’t quite true. The oyster is still quite alive when it goes down the hatch, as Mark Kurlansky makes clear in his book The Big Oyster : quoting a 19th century oyster scientist, he writes: “A fresh oyster on the half shell is no more dead than an ox that’s been hamstrung”.
The exact moment of the end is often more obvious than it is for the oysters on its half shell. But knowing the specifics of timing, and even the exact cause of death? It just doesn’t help with the moral ambiguity.
(P.S.: I’d been planning to write about something else today, but since the shuttering of Gourmet magazine was announced yesterday, and since that magazine ran one of my favorite essays of all time, Consider the Lobster, by David Foster Wallace, I decided to write something about shellfish and food and endings instead.)