My daddy was an oyster man. Oh, I don’t mean a fisherman who plies his trade harvesting sack after sack of fresh oysters from Louisiana’s Gulf waters, but rather, my dad was obsessed with eating them. Baked oysters, fried oysters, oyster stew, and oyster po’boys were all part of my dad’s oyster addiction, but if you want to know his favorite way of eating oysters, just read on.
When I was just old enough to appreciate the difference between fish sticks and trout Amandine, my father loaded me into his pickup early one Saturday morning and took me on an adventure. From my home in the small Louisiana town of Bogalusa, the city of New Orleans was just an hour away and a world apart. That day spent with my dad was my culinary epiphany; it was an awakening that sent me on the path of delicious discovery that I still walk to this day. Here’s the story in a nutshell, uh, half shell.
Once a month, my father visited a restaurant supply wholesaler to buy kitchen appliances and other provisions for his café, and on occasion, I tagged along. He was deep in thought that morning, and we barely spoke as we trucked along the 2-lane blacktop road that wound through Bush, over Money Hill, and into Mandeville. But when we started across the 26-mile long Causeway bridging Lake Pontchartrain to New Orleans, he started talking a blue streak.
As is usual in my family, the conversation soon turned to food. He began to rant about the high price of beef and other meats, and as he looked out across the lake and saw the crab boats motoring along their line of pots, he proclaimed he might change to an all-seafood menu. He asked what my favorite was, and I didn’t hesitate to volunteer my preference for fried shrimp, which I just knew would be on his new menu. Somewhere in the conversation, before we exited the bridge, he mentioned oysters, and I told him I had never eaten one of those slimy things, and couldn’t see why anyone else would either. With a tilt of his head and a snide little smile, he acknowledged my critique. And he decided on lunch.
We finished up at the supply store by mid-morning, and he drove a beeline to the French Quarter. My father parked the truck in the parking garage in the Monteleone Hotel and quickly ushered me onto the street. “Gotta beat the crowd,” he said, and we walked at a half-trot down Iberville Street to what I was about to find out was his holy shrine of deliciousness.
Scurrying by storefronts and shuffling past leisurely tourists, we stopped in mid stride. We had arrived. I wasn’t quite sure what this place was, why I was there, or why he was so anxious for me to see it. I surveyed the outside and what I saw with my untrained eye was just another dilapidated building with a neon sign that read Felix’s Restaurant. And then, I saw a big smile on his face. There on the sign along the bottom row, I read “oysters.”
Five decades later, I am now firmly convinced that while my father waited at the pearly gates to see St. Peter, he downed a couple of dozen of those salty wonders that he swore were never as good anywhere else but Felix’s Oyster Bar. His devotion to this little joint was borderline fanatical, and his passion for oysters is a bona fide obsession. And as I would come to find out, mine too.
He opened the glass door, and the cold air inside Felix’s Oyster Bar was a welcome relief from my forced “death march” down the scorched cement sidewalks of the Quarter. I looked to see what table he would pick out for us and was surprised when he motioned me to jump up on a stool beside him at the bar. Back then, it was okay for underage kids to sip a Roy Rogers at the bar, but even I was shocked that we were at the bar at 11:30 am. As you might have guessed, this was an oyster bar, and when I looked over the counter at the ice-filled metal bin stacked high with oyster shells, I knew it was an adventure I wouldn’t soon forget.
Daddy got a bottle of Jax (it’s never too early with oysters), and I took a swig of my Barq’s. My father held up two fingers, and the man behind the counter went to work. Our shucker could dispatch a couple dozen fresh out of their shells before you could mix up your bowl of sauce. And speaking of sauce, my father had a particular combination that took full advantage of everything offered. It was always ketchup at the base, a bit of Blue Plate, a glob of horseradish, a shot of Worcestershire, a squeeze of lemon, and a dash or three of Tabasco–pungent to say the least. I took charge of my personal sauce detail and went easier on the hot stuff.
There’s nothing too terribly difficult about eating an oyster. My dad subscribes to the “sauce, slurp, and sip” method of stabbing an oyster for a quick plunge in his spicy sauce cauldron and swallowing it whole with a beer chaser. I, however, went cracker-style by placing an oyster on a saltine with a spoonful of sauce and placing the entire thing in my mouth. By the time I slid down the last of my dozen, they tasted pretty darn good.
And by the end of the second dozen, I was becoming quite the expert hanging shell-for-shell with him. At that time of my life, there had been only one occasion (coming in runner-up in the Cub Scouts’ Pinewood Derby) that had impressed my father. This was the second. He would later tell me on the ride home, that when I finished off that third dozen, he knew for sure that I was his son and that he was most proud of me. I glowed. Either from the lofty praise of my proud father or the horseradish, I glowed.
As I look back, I can tell that day spent with my dad at Felix’s Oyster Bar was more than a platter of oysters. That day was a rite of passage of my father welcoming me into his world. Some kids learn a perfect curveball or how to rapid fire a 12-gauge at a flock of incoming geese, but I learned to lock and load three dozen oysters balanced on a barstool at nine years old.
Not too shabby.
On today’s Acadiana Table, it’s all about raw oysters, and instead of a recipe, let’s have a kitchen table conversation. And I’m hoping that with your comments, we can engage in a lively discussion. With a little help from my good friend and oyster expert Jim Gossen, I’ll start it off with what I call my “rules” when it comes to eating oysters, and I’ll condense them down to seven points.
Raw Oyster Rules
1- Fresh Gulf oysters are the best.
I know that other parts of the country have tasty oysters, but being born and fed in Louisiana, I swear by the briny bivalves that come out of our Gulf of Mexico waters. Plump and not too sweet, these are technically the Atlantic species of oysters that are consistently larger than other oysters.
2- Time of year.
Oyster lore of long ago was that you only eat oysters in a month that has an “R” in it. September through April being the cooler months meant that the oysters were at their peak. With modern harvesting, processing, and cold storage, that is no longer the case. All that said, there are still many who subscribe to that belief and shun raw oysters during the heat of the summer months of July and August. I’m one of them. The real reason is that these months are the spawning season and the oysters tend to be watery and not at their tastiest.
3- Shuck ‘em to order.
Unless you are a do-it-yourself home shucker, your choice of restaurant will be important. Go to an establishment that has an honest-to-goodness stand-up oyster bar with fresh raw oysters on ice. And strike up a conversation with the oyster shuckers; they are a rich source of information. Pass on any restaurant that serves their oysters on a tray out of the back kitchen. And always tip your oyster shucker, and a recommendation from Jim is to tip him before he begins shucking; you’ll always get his best oysters and service.
4- Order up a dozen at a time.
Order one dozen oysters for yourself. Why bother with anything less? But by ordering just a dozen, you can check out the plumpness, taste the brininess, and determine if this oyster purveyor is worth his salt. Another dozen, please.
5- Get saucy.
Lots of purists scoff at sauce with their oysters, but I enjoy the spike of spice that sauce adds to the experience of eating raw oysters. While you wait for your tray of oysters, make your sauce from the usual ingredients (ketchup, horseradish, Worcestershire, hot sauce, and lemon). If they do not have an add-on you like, then feel free to ask.
6- The little fork.
The primary function of the small cocktail fork is to pull and scrape the oyster muscle from the shell if the shucker hasn’t done his job correctly (which is rare). Most experienced oyster eaters will discard the fork and simply squeeze a little lemon, a drop of hot sauce, slurp the oyster from the shell, and let it slide. The reason for this is simple: oyster liquor. The natural juice in an oyster is fresh and briny with a texture all its own. But if you are a novice, feel free to spear your oyster with the fork and drag it through the sauce and bring it to your open mouth. Either way, it works.
7- Cracker or no cracker?
Pros forgo the saltines, but most amateur oyster eaters (me included) enjoy the crunchy platform that salted cracker squares provide in staging the oyster. But by no means should you ever take out a knife and fork. No matter how large the oyster, it is supposed to be consumed whole.
And that’s that. Nothing to cook here. Pull up a stool, pop open a cold one, and order up a dozen raw. And make a few memories on the half shell.
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