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Shuck and Awe

Sucking down seafood with oyster expert Rowan Jacobsen


Published December 19, 2007 at 12:21 p.m.

Central Vermont is way better known for “granola” than shellfish, but that is changing on account of a resident oyster expert who calls Calais home. Rowan Jacobsen, 39, is the landlocked author of A Geography of Oysters: The Connoisseur’s Guide to Oyster Eating in North America, which includes tips on shipping, beverage pairing and recipes. Since it was released in September, the comprehensive tome has been going down easy in the food world. Critics raved in the Los Angeles Times and Boston Globe, and Jacobsen was recently interviewed on NPR’s “All Things Considered.” Just the other day, staffers at Burlington’s Borders Books & Music couldn’t rustle up a single copy: They’d sold out.

Jacobsen freelances for the highly regarded, Peacham-based The Art of Eating and works as a writer and editor from his Calais home. Drawing from a background in health and fitness, he ghostwrote The Viagra Alternative: The Complete Guide to Overcoming Erectile Dysfunction Naturally and edited Ecstasy: The Complete Guide: A Comprehensive Look at the Risks and Benefits of MDMA. Books with his own name attached include one on the “surprising health benefits” of chocolate. Last year, after becoming entranced with a rare type of oyster, Jacobsen decided to turn a personal passion into a publishing project: eating and writing about the purportedly aphrodisiacal bivalves.

What’s a mollusk master, who downed his first oyster at the tender age of 12, doing in a tiny Vermont town that hasn’t had a garden-variety bar, let alone a raw one, for over a century?

I went to find out, lured by the promise of slurping down 10 different species of slick, barely deceased shellfish. As Jacobsen explains in his book, with Internet access and a credit card, you can get excellent oysters virtually anywhere. In fact, ours — from Jacobsen’s favored distributor, American Mussels Harvesters of Rhode Island — may turn out to be fresher than the ones served by shuckers in seaside cities. “If I order a plate of oysters at Joe Blow’s Oyster Bar . . . it’s a different story,” he writes in the book. “Joe can’t deal with every oyster grower directly, so he gets all his oysters from a wholesaler once a week. . .” Those oysters are “at least a week out of the water by the time they hit your mignonette, possibly more.”

After a slow slog up a steep hill, I arrive at Jacobsen’s Cape-style house. The wiry author, with dark hair and blue eyes, greets me at the door. He’s actually a St. Johnsbury native who grew up Plainfield and, after the “hippy house” pipes froze one too many times, the family picked up and moved to Florida. That’s where Jacobsen developed his gastronomic sea legs, so to speak, pulling oysters from the water and eating them on the spot. After grad school, Jacobsen moved back to his home state.

As I walk into his kitchen, I notice a bowl of shallot-studded mignonette sauce, a small plate of sliced citrus fruits and an oyster knife sitting on an island in the middle of the room. He fetches a Styrofoam container from the fridge and begins pulling out blue mesh bags filled with tear-shaped shells in colors ranging from delicate pink to mossy green to black. There are 10 bags in all, half-a-dozen oysters to a bag, and he groups them into piles of East and West Coast varieties. We have five types from the Atlantic and five from the Pacific.

As mandated by the federal government, each bag comes labeled with a waterproof white tag proclaiming the oysters’ place of origin — ranging from Alaska to Prince Edward Island — the date they were harvested and the standard USDA warning reminding consumers that eating raw seafood can increase the risk of acquiring a food-borne illness. Both shellfish retailers and restaurants are required to preserve the tags in case of an outbreak of deadly Vibrio vulnificus, a virulent bacterium sometimes found in raw oysters.

How likely is it that we’ll make ourselves sick by sucking down our raw samples? Not very. In fact, Jacobsen devotes a mere five pages of the book’s 287 to seafood safety. According to Jacobsen’s research, oysters account for only 10 deaths a year, compared with 5000 stemming from the consumption of poultry, meat and raw veggies.

Plus, all the deadly oysters come from one place: the warm, polluted Gulf of Mexico. “Non-Gulf oysters kill no one,” Jacobsen claims. We aren’t eating any Gulf oysters.

He proceeds to liberate the creatures from the mesh, selecting a few and putting others aside. What’s the sorting rationale? “They should feel heavy for their size,” Jacobsen explains. The book goes into additional detail: “You want an oyster that looks robust and muscular, even gnarly . . . If the oyster makes a hollow sound when you tap on the shell, it has lost its liquor and should be avoided.”

Cupping the handle of a blunt-tipped oyster knife in his palm, Jacobsen expertly pushes it into the oyster and I hear a slight crunch. He slides the blade along the top shell, cuts the pearly meat away from the bottom shell, flips it to show the “pretty, curved underside,” and places it in a big metal mixing bowl filled with fresh-scooped snow from his yard. Each oyster’s undoing only takes a few seconds. Soon, it’s time for us to gulp down the first set.

I must confess I’m feeling some trepidation. Like most Americans, I’m unused to communing with my meals while they’re still alive — I’ve never even cooked a lobster — but that’s not what’s on my mind right now. It’s that my personal knowledge of oysters doesn’t extend beyond a couple of visits to raw bars, where I’ve never consumed more than six at one sitting. I’m afraid I might get grossed out downing dozens of slippery oyster bodies or that I won’t be able to differentiate the flavor of one species from another.

But if anyone can make briny beasts user-friendly, it’s Jacobsen. We begin with the East Coasters, which have “a milder flavor than the Pacifics,” he explains. The unspoken implication: They’ll be easier for a relative oyster novice, such as myself, to handle. That’s especially important since I’m planning to forgo the condiments in an effort to be as intimate as I can with each oyster. Our pickings include shellfish from Connecticut, Maine, P.E.I. and Cape Breton.

The Connecticut Blue Points and the P.E.I. Pickle Points are milky and fat. Examining a pale, translucent Cape Breton, Jacobsen guesses that it “hasn’t been feeding very happily or successfully.” True to his observation, the oyster tastes mainly of brine. The Pickle Point, on the other hand, is buttery and meaty. Like most oysters, it starts with a sea taste, but the flavor develops as it slides backwards on my tongue, and deepens when it slips down my throat. The word that comes to mind is a Japanese one, “umami,” which can be loosely translated as savory-ness. The Pickle Points are my fave of the first five.

Then we start in on the West Coast. After watching Jacobsen slip his oyster knife into the pointy end of a Totten Virginica from Washington state, wiggle it around and pop open the shell with a twist of his wrist, I tentatively ask if he’ll teach me to shuck. Of course I already know he will. In one practical chapter of his book, Jacobsen compares shucking oysters to “changing a tire.” He claims it’s “one of those basic tasks that every fully realized human being should master . . . It’s even a great icebreaker — knives, towels and Band-Aids all around, then let the shells fly!”

Luckily, this time no first aid is required. I grasp the shell in a towel already wet with brine and flecked with bits of dirt and oyster flesh, find the tiny gap into which I can insert the oyster knife, and wiggle away. After a minute during which nothing happens, there’s a shift and a pop. Success. Jacobsen instructs me to cradle the shell in my hand, slide the knife back inside the oyster, and run it across the top shell to cut the adductor muscle. I do. It’s the first time I’ve ever killed an animal for my own consumption.

Jacobsen is much faster than I am, so I shuck only one more before surrendering the knife. Since it doesn’t look like we’ll get through all 60, I figure I’ll get to try again at home.

The Pacifics are ready, and I tip my oyster down my throat, chewing gently a few times to release the sweet and meaty flavors that come after the initial rush of salinity. It doesn’t taste any different because I shucked it myself, but I’m still pretty proud.

Perhaps because the East Coasters broke me in, or perhaps because I’ve been a latent oyster fanatic all along, I find the fatties from Washington rich and flavorful. Jacobsen describes another Washington-grown variety, the petite, ever-popular Kumamoto, as tasting like “salted watermelon.” And he’s totally right. Their dark shells are interesting, too, with pale ridges that look like skeletal fingers. Emerald Coves, from British Columbia, are delicately opalescent and aptly named: The shells are a shimmery green. We also try Coos Bay oysters from Oregon, but decide to forgo the humongous Canoe Lagoons from Alaska.

As we pack up the remaining oysters for another day, I ask Jacobsen why he became a food writer. “I’ve always been interested in food. It’s one of the main connections we have with the natural world,” he muses. “It’s part of the way that we remember we’re still part of the ecosystem, even if the ecosystem is completely fucked.” As for writing a book entirely on bivalves, he says, “I started thinking about what makes them different from each other. I like variations within a theme; it helps you to grok what’s going on with that particular thing.” The chance to eat a favorite food as “research” didn’t hurt, either.

I start back down the snowy hill with a box of live oysters resting on my passenger seat. As the highway slides by, I daydream about how smooth they felt against my tongue and the complex, varied flavors that surfaced in the last seconds. Just a few hours ago, I was afraid I wouldn’t be able to swallow my share. Now I’m greedily craving more.

Like forking up steak tartare or snacking on sashimi, eating raw oysters feels primal and sexy. In our “safe” food culture of pasteurization and overcooking, thrusting a knife into a muddy shell and dumping the contents down your throat seems a little bit dangerous. That the sea creatures put up a fight only intensifies our desire. How often do we really have to work for our food? That, undeniably, is part of the oyster’s appeal.