Your First Oyster
It's usually not love at first sight, but then you understand what all the fuss is about
The first one I ate tasted like river mud.
It was not that earthy, pungent, essence du monde that well-traveled people like to go on about over their quenelles aux huîtres. It tasted like wet dirt, only slicker, fishier, like what a tadpole would taste like if you sucked it right out of the ditch, or a wet hoofprint.
Of course, I was not a gourmand then. I was a sun-scorched boy in a dockside restaurant in Panama City, intoxicated by the aroma of coconut butter suntan lotion and piña colada lip balm, and flabbergasted by ten thousand teenage Baptists in tiny two-piece bathing suits. I wanted to eat oysters because it seemed like a thing a man of the world would do in 1971, like being a spy against the Communists, or owning an MGB. But that taste, and that horrible consistency—somewhere among raw chicken liver, Jell-O, beef tripe, and Dippity-do—haunted me for years.
“What does one look like?” one of my brothers asked me at the time.
“Well,” I said, “it’s gray-lookin’.”
“What does it taste like?” he asked.
“Well,” I said, “it’s…it’s…” but it was just beyond me then.
How could people eat something I could not even say?
Maybe, I remember thinking, they might not be so damn awful if they were cooked. I mean, I suspect that a pork chop would be pretty grim if you had to eat it while the hog was still kicking. But later, in high school, one of my mean girl cousins gave me a fried one from her seafood platter, and even though it was entombed in batter and well and truly dead, it still tasted like tadpole, but crunchier this time.
I spit that one out. At least, back then, I did not have to pretend to like them, to fit in. That came later, when I became a writer.