Posted on March 16th, 2012
My favorite watermelon region is the stratum of tart, crisp, pale pink flesh that starts just above the rind and extends for about an inch. When I was nine I ate my watermelon with a paring knife. My mom would eat the sweet, gritty, seed-filled mouthfuls of the melon’s core and then donate the remains to me, her weird kid. With my trusty blade I would slice off thin strips and hold them up to admire their translucence before munching away on the marvelous texture. One time, a thought popped into my head and I said it out loud after preparing a delicate fillet– “Sea meat!”
That was pretty much it. No one heard me and I was never asked to clarify the term and its relation to watermelon, but I liked it enough to remember it for 20 years. Back when I was calling watermelon “sea meat” I was a horribly picky eater. I would have cried over the concept of sashimi, and I recall forming some kind of twisted mental association between meatloaf and Mr. Snuffelupagus that still makes me think twice. I flayed the cheese off my pizza only to reveal thick smears of sauce speckled with horrible tiny green things which I would then scrape off, thus preparing a moist, beige, triangle that had been infused with all of the things that make pizza great. I wasn’t consciously unhappy about any of it, but I now suspect that my fruity sea meat was a cry for help from my suppressed and stunted palate. Luckily, we knew Italians.
We knew what I categorized as the Nice Italians and the Mean Italians, in terms of whether or not they would cater to my terrified tastebuds. The mother of the Mean Italians would not only ignore my explanations of why I didn’t want to eat something, but would yell at me, openly mocking me, making me feel as lame and obnoxious as I was. The mother of the Nice Italians would graciously serve me bowls of hydrated Lipton soup packets and plain pasta, and I would sit at the table with everyone else around me eating veal saltimbocca. In essence, it was a delicious-smelling form of immersion therapy. After a couple years of picking at bowls of buttered and salted pasta and feeling silent-yet-powerful waves of annoyance radiating from the family’s father, I cracked. I began accepting a thin sheen of red sauce on my pasta. Then a dusting of freshly-grated Parmesan. Still no meatballs though (Snuffy!). In fact, I didn’t eat my first hamburger until the age of 25.
With the help of the Nice Italians, I came to know and love the genuine sea meat of calamari, shrimp, clams, and mussels. Even landbound snails have recently made it onto my list of ingested invertebrates. But like the headstrong little mermaid, Ariel, angsting out in her grotto of treasures: I want more. I want to eat a whole lobster. Crabs, too. I have some catching up to do, so I decided it was time to cross more actual sea meat off my list. Raw oysters. I live right outside of Boston and the Atlantic Ocean, and because cocktail and oyster bars are so in right now, I decided to visit Island Creek Oyster Bar for my first raw bivalve experience.
Before heading out I gave myself a quick Internet Education on the topic of oysters. I learned that oysters don’t have central nervous systems, and so vegans like to argue over whether or not they should eat them. One guy basically compared oysters to plants, saying that in terms of ethical eating the two are almost indistinguishable. Sea meat, indeed. Personally, I think that eating anything with a heart and an anus while it’s still alive should give one pause. Based on the number of online message boards with titles like “when does the oyster die?” I guessed I wasn’t alone. Plants require photons for survival; I just can’t relate to that, but everybody has probably felt like they are little more than a sessile sack of flesh with a hole at each end at some point in their lives. There. I had taken my pause. Time to belly up to the raw bar and have a drink to clear all of those pesky ethics out of my head.
Since ICOB is in the same talented family as Eastern Standard and the Hawthorne, I decided to pair a stereotyped-but-sumptious glass of sparkling wine with my oysters, knowing that I could have delicious cocktails at one (or both) of the other establishments without even having to leave Hotel Commonwealth. I told the bartender, Devin, that these would be my first oysters ever and he started me off in the right direction by pouring me not only the Prosecco that I’d ordered, but also a generous half-pour of the Aubry Brut Premier Cru Jouy-les-Reims. With a sip of the almost flesh-toned wine sparkling on my tongue, I was ready to bring on the bivalves.
I studied the menu and decided to try one of each New England variety to get a taste of some local marine terroir, or “merroir.” My icy plate of oysters arrived and they all looked extremely dead. No little sea hearts were obviously beating, and so I took in their warm grey color scheme, imagining myself laying naked and hungover in a half shell wishing desperately for my central nervous system to die, and tipped back my first oyster– an Island Creek original from Duxbury, MA. I gave the sea meat a few good chews, and was surprised by the burst of tangy salt water. The second oyster, a Rocky Point from Kingston, MA, was noticeably sweeter with a more balanced tartness. Each oyster variety listed on the menu was paired with the names of the oyster farmers who raised them from 5 millimeter spats, and just like that I was charmed. Charmed by mollusks. I went on to eat a Chatham, a Sunken Medow Gem, and a Wild Wellfleet. All different, all delicious and refreshing. Merroir, indeed.
A week later I went back for West Coast oysters, and was delighted by how much smaller and sweeter they were. At this point, I have eaten three different species of oyster from at least 15 varieties. Most of the varieties were local, and now I look forward to sampling the local oyster varieties when I travel. If you get into the spirit of oyster culture and play it right, you can feel more like an ecologist than a snob when you say things like I just said. Get scientific about it; annotate a map, keep a list, plot a graph, eat at least n=3 of each oyster species, etc. Visit an oyster farm. Photograph your plate of oysters. Chat with the bartender or server about the oysters because, like sommeliers of the sea, they will be able to tell you about the main flavor profile of a variety and link it to the oyster’s waters of origin. Oops, starting to sound a little snobby again. Did you know oysters have kidneys?
Now, at the age of 29, I consider learning how to actually eat my most important milestone. Given that we live in a time where people care deeply about their food and drink, and respect the professionals who educate us with their creativity and knowledge, I might have caught up on my own– but I give the Nice Italians all the credit. Look, ma! I’m eating raw oyster meat and sipping mezcal from their empty shells! And maybe I’m also crunching on thinly sliced pale pink watermelon as a palate cleanser between oyster varieties. You never know. Sea meat, meet sea meat.