Eating, shucking and loving the Chesapeake oyster

Second of two parts; read first article here.

Brian McComas can't quite remember the first oyster he ever ate, but he guesses that before swallowing the slippery seafood, he was "a bit apprehensive."

McComas, who with wife Jennifer owns the Ryleigh's Oyster restaurants in Federal Hill and Timonium, grew up in Baltimore County but spent many hours with his grandparents, who lived on the Eastern Shore. He probably tried that first oyster around age 4, he thinks, at the behest of his Grandfather Wallace.

"When my grandfather said to do something, you did it and you didn't ask questions," McComas says. "So I slurped down that first one many years ago, and I haven't looked back."

McComas says he now eats a few dozen each week, but even among those born and bred in Baltimore, there are plenty of people who reach adulthood without ever having tried an oyster.

According to McComas, most people who are willing to try oysters — even raw — end up enjoying them. But before they try, they often have to overcome hang-ups about the way the oyster looks.

"If you can get the oyster virgins past the texture and look of a raw oyster, they try more," he says.

A word of advice for novices: Start slowly. This comes from Candace Beattie, owner of Thames Street Oyster House in Fells Point.

"Some people have preconceived notions that scare them about an oyster's texture more than taste, but it's great to introduce someone properly by offering a smaller, more delicate oyster and a little bit of education," she says.

McComas says he often hears questions like, "Is it still alive?" and "Should I chew it or bite it?" He suggests "slurping the first one down," to experience the flavors and get past any fear about the texture. But after that, he says, people should try "moving on to a longer stay in the mouth."

Children trying their first oyster often compare the flavor to the sea, says Beattie. "I love when kids eat their first oyster here at the restaurant," she says. "Some love the salty and unique taste for the first time — and it's actually very, very rare that I get a negative reaction from a child who is willing to try one."

More advanced oyster eaters — or those who just like more information along with their seafood — might ask questions about where the oysters were raised and whether they were harvested from the wild or farmed. Restaurants serving a variety of oysters often include on their menus brief descriptions of where the oysters came from and what they will taste like.

Because oysters take on particular flavors and textures depending on where they are raised (a concept referred to as "merroir"), understanding an oyster's back story can contribute to the enjoyment of eating one.

[Read more about farming and eating local oysters in last week's article.]

The variations between different types of oysters lend the bivalve a certain romance lacking in most foods. "Oysters can be local and global," says Kim Hovell, an Annapolis artist who frequently creates paintings that feature oysters. "They are vacations to the cold Pacific coast, dark December nights roasting by the fire with family and friends, and home on the Chesapeake Bay."

That variety also means there are oysters for different palates. "Some people prefer saltier oysters, some sweet and mild," says Beattie. "West Coast oysters tend to be fruity and creamy, and some can have a metallic finish that some people don't care for. Chesapeake Bay oysters tend to be mild, plump and not very salty, or sometimes considered sweeter. As you travel up the East Coast, the salt and brine become more pronounced due to closer proximity to the ocean."

Enjoying oysters in a restaurant is easy: just choose, order and slurp. But eating them on the half-shell at home is a little more complicated. Though seafood markets typically sell oysters already shucked, either in pints or still in their shells, they're best enjoyed immediately after being shucked. So serious oyster aficionados need to learn to do that work themselves.

Nick Schauman, a Baltimore-based shucker who works parties and events as "The Local Oyster," explains that historically, Baltimore shuckers had a unique method. "Old shuckers call themselves Chesapeake Stabbers after their technique," he says. "They go in through the side as opposed to going through the hinge, which is what most everybody else does."

When he's shucking, Schauman uses both the traditional and the Chesapeake method. "It depends on what kind of oyster you've got," he says. "Some are brittle, and some are harder than others."

Wild Chesapeake oysters typically have very hard shells, says Tim Devine, owner of Barren Island Oysters. "You can open a wild oyster with a screwdriver or slam it with a brick," he says with a laugh. However, farmed "triploid" oysters, like Devine's, are more fragile. "They're a much more delicate creature than their wild cousin. They break if you don't know how to do it."

[Wondering if you can eat oysters in the summer? The answer is yes. Here's why.]

Once shucked, oysters are surprisingly versatile, making their way into stuffing, stew, grilled dishes and even beer, like the Pearl Necklace Oyster Stout brewed by Frederick's Flying Dog Brewery.

The Pearl Necklace Stout is made by adding oyster shells to the beer during the brewing process. The goal, says Flying Dog's brewmaster, Matt Brophy, is not to brew a stout that tastes like oysters, but to make one that pairs well.

The stout and oyster pairing has a long history, says Brophy. "When you look, historically, at oyster stouts, the tradition started in places like Baltimore where there was an abundance of oysters," he says. "The working man, at the end of the day, could enjoy a stout and oysters because they were so plentiful. So it started as a pairing, then a few brewers started using oysters when making stout."

Restaurateurs sing the praises of their chefs' oyster-laden dishes, from stew to pot pie. But they also agree that oysters taste best in their simplest form: freshly shucked and on the half-shell.

"I'm a purist and I love them on the half-shell," says Brian McComas.

When eaten raw, oysters are usually doctored with a drop of cocktail sauce and a squeeze of lemon (or a shot of beer or vodka, when in oyster shooter form). For events, Schauman makes cocktail and mignonette (red wine vinegar, black pepper and shallots) sauces and experiments with creative grilled oyster toppings like roasted padron peppers. But when he's indulging on his own, he keeps it simple. "I generally prefer to eat them with nothing on them," he says. "I always go back to a plain oyster to clean my palate."

Slathered in sauce or stark naked, oysters are a communal food. Like Maryland's other favorite seafood, crabs, oysters are most often enjoyed in the company of friends and family, either at a bull and oyster roast (the Chesapeake region's favorite form of fundraiser), in restaurants or markets, or at home.

"There is a certain sense of fun and discovery when sharing a delicacy like oysters with others," says Beattie. "With all the different oysters available, it's an interesting experience you want to share. The only thing that makes great food and drink better is great company.

"Oh, and it's acceptable for everyone to eat with their hands."

Gear up

Shucking oysters at home requires little more than a sharp, sturdy knife. But connoisseurs might be interested in starting an oyster-prep collection. A few basics:

Knives: Oyster knives come in a variety of shapes and sizes; they typically have short, sharp and sturdy blades and good grips. Because Chesapeake oysters can be large, some shuckers prefer knives with longer blades. Oyster knives are available at cooking specialty stores and websites, knife shops and locally at stores like the J.O. Spice Co. store in Arbutus.

Gloves: Not all shuckers wear gloves, but they can be a helpful way to protect the hands while handling oysters. They range from simple and inexpensive gloves made from fabric (including cut-proof fabrics, like Kevlar) to much costlier options made from materials such as mesh stainless steel.

Forks: Though many oyster lovers prefer to slurp the bivalve right out of the shell — no utensils necessary — small oyster forks, which typically have three tines and are about 4 inches long, are the "proper" utensil for those who prefer to keep their hands clean.

Plates and trays: Oyster plate collecting is a popular (and often expensive) hobby, but the plates, which are often vibrantly painted and include indentations for oyster shells, are useful for more than decoration. The indentations make placing oysters on the plate less of a balancing act. Alternatively, many restaurants present oysters in round trays filled with crushed ice — keeping them both settled in place and well chilled.

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