Shuck it

I have worked in many restaurants, but never the line. I never had the courage. Cooking is one thing, but cooking and getting it out to a massive crowd who are all ordering on a whim is a whale in a bear suit. (which makes crazy thoughts go through your head like, “why the f…are you ordering a Tbone right now? What about the short ribs? why can’t you have the decency, this one time in your life, to order short ribs?”) Anyway, I was asked to help a friend, and I said yes. When I got there, the chef asked me to shuck oysters. I have never shucked oysters. Not because I don’t have the dice, but because, why would anyone eat a raw gelatinous glob of grey flesh? Not me. The next chef down looked at me and wrote what he was thinking on his forehead. “Fish Tender Grandma. Cardboard box with a captain on it.” It took me three oysters and I was in charge of the raw bar. No one has ever had to wait so long for a plate of oysters. No one. The rest of the table was easily on dessert by the time my plate of half a dozen beauties showed up. Some of them were in tact and some of them were most definitely ripped to shreds with that dull blunt of an ice pick you are meant to do the surgery with, but my hands are without wounds, and everybody ate. If nothing else, I know how to set a goal, no matter what is happening around me. Like some people go for, “my son will win the olympics. I will never yell as a mother.” Quietly, in my head, I tend to go for, “my son will live to see the sun rise. I will remain coherent to witness it.” So, I am so happy that I shucked almost all the oysters I was asked to and tossed a bunch of frites into a fryer (also a first; apparently very popular in haute cuisine) could identify “ile flottante” when it was shouted in my direction, and got floating as directed, all on the plate. The beautiful thing is, I know so deeply, that high end restaurant cooking is not my cooking. I love it, I appreciate it, I will eat it, but it has nothing to do with me. Which makes it possible to show up as the parsley chopper and counter scrubber, the curb hugging bottom of the totem pole with no chops and walk out without a chin scrape. And knowing so much more about raw mollusks than I did when I got there.

The tricks:

There is no drinking or smoking, before or during this. I mean, you can, but not if you want to keep the hand holding the oyster. Make sure you know where your oysters came from. They should have papers to prove it. An oyster knife looks like the kind of short knife you would carry in your inside pocket in case you had to take it to a party and stab somebody with a slow and painful entry. The blade is not sharp. It is like a slender, dull, little dagger. Dampen a kitchen towel and fold it into a square. Hold the knife in your right hand, if you are right handed and set the oyster on the towel with the flat side up and and the narrow end of the oyster pointed to the right. In that nose, there is a line of tight, dark grey flesh. You have got to find that and stick in the oyster dagger, grabbing the dagger with your palm facing your chest. Now wiggle the dagger a bit, holding the left edge of the towel over the oyster for safety. Go slow. Don’t let anyone rush you. Keep your focus. Make sure your dagger is pointed at a forty five angle DOWN; not to the side. Remember you want to keep your hand; for many things, not just shucking oysters. If you are making progress, the tip of the dagger will have made its way into that skinny piece of nearly invisible flesh. Quickly give a flick to your wrist to twist the shell open. Gently. If you go too hard, the shell will flake and crack and all of that mess will get into the pool of oyster liquor that gets thrown down the throat along with the flesh. Don’t throw up yet. Don’t think about that. You have got a job to do. Once your are in, (remember–with just the point of the knife; just enough for entry.) drop the towel. Catch the crack you have got open with your right thumb to hold open just enough to get the flat of the knife between the rest of the two shells so that you can very gently loosen the shells from each other, all the way around their circumference. You want to keep the flat of the knife, scraping against the flat of the top shell, so that you very cleanly and carefully cut the flesh from the top shell without ripping it. Once you feel the flesh has been released, open the shell (the top shell should be completely clean) and hold steady onto the bottom shell that has both the oyster and the liquor in it. Don’t lose a drop of that. Now set the bottom shell onto the towel and with the point of the dagger, carefully loosen the belly of the oyster so that it can slide away when tipped to somebody’s mouth. Keep watching the liquor. Keep it in there. Very carefully inspect the edges for flakes of shell, which can contaminate the whole thing, and wipe any shell bits away from the edges with your clean fingertip. Last and most important step: Smell it. The oyster should smell fresh. It shouldn’t smell weird or suspicious in any way. There should be plenty of liquid and not at all dried up looking. You think that $2 is a lot of money that you spent for that oyster? Think about how much it is going to cost you for an ambulance to take you and your wretching gut to safety.

You did it. Now do what you want with it. At the restaurant they served it with a tiny ramekin of mignonette. Just let a teaspoon of good salt dissolve in 1/4 cup of dry red wine and 1/4 cup of red wine vinegar. Finely chop a small clove of garlic and a small shallot. Bang a sprig of fresh thyme once or twice, and add that with a tablespoon of or two of olive oil and a few good grinds of black pepper. Let it sit for at least twenty minutes and up to overnight. Taste. It should pack a punch.

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