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Nostalgia on the half-shell

"This one's for you, Pop."

“This one’s for you, Pop.”

While writing a story about this weekend’s New Orleans Oyster Festival, I naturally got to thinking about my own personal history of oysters. (Note: if you’re not planning on being there, think again — there will be bivalves galore from 24 different restaurants, great live local music, a shucking contest, and a chance to watch Sonya “The Black Widow” Thomas best her IFOCE record of slurping down 47 dozen erstahs in only eight minutes.)

Growing up in New Orleans, one is exposed to oysters at a young age, and then continuously throughout one’s life here.  Oysters are ubiquitous in this town, and rightfully so.  The Crescent City is located in a region that’s almost geographically and ecologically perfect for oyster cultivation, not only keeping our oysters plump and clean-tasting all year round, but also resulting in a price-point that’s nearly unheard of in the rest of the country.  Asking me to pay $3.50 per oyster in New York or Seattle is a personal insult that at best disgusts me, and at worst sends me into a fit of apoplectic rage. You might as well be kissing my girlfriend or stealing my watch: unacceptable, and possibly worth coming to blows.

Oysters are the food of the people here, an egalitarian treat enjoyed as much by the unwashed masses as by the seersucker snobs, rather than an effete, precious delicacy.  Like everything else about life in New Orleans, we love them with abandon, joyfully and in great quantities.  Why have six oysters when you can have three dozen?

I wasn’t always so passionate about oysters, however. Growing up, I’d have the occasional fried oyster salad or sandwich, though I usually tended to prefer a fried-shrimp po-boy to its oyster-stuffed cousin. As for the raw bar, forget about it.  After a particularly revolting story of college hijinks oft-recounted by my father (which I’ll spare you here), as well as numerous comparisons of raw bivalves to jumbo loogies, the thought of sucking down the raw ones did little more than tickle my gag reflex.

Then, when I was 18 and in my freshman year of college, everything changed. While visiting my grandparents in Shreveport, my family made an outing to our favorite restaurant in the Ark-La-Tex: Herby K’s, home of the “shrimp buster.”  An absolute dive of a joint in all of the best ways, as well as a regional institution for generations, we always loved cramming ourselves into one of their tiny booths and feasting on gargantuan onion rings, steak fries, domestic draught beer served in frosty fishbowl goblets, and jumbo shrimp that the cooks hammer flat, batter and deep fry to perfection. It’s a magical place.

On that particular evening, my grandfather decided to begin the meal with a dozen on the half-shell. For some reason, when the oysters came out to him on a bed of crushed ice with a pair of lemon wedges and a cup of cocktail sauce, glistening in the gaudy light of a neon Budweiser sign , they didn’t look so bad.

“I’m a man, now,” I told myself, “old enough to vote and living my own life three states away.  Why not give raw oysters the old college try?”

When I asked my grandfather, whom we affectionately knew as “Pop,” if he’d be willing to spare an oyster, the man didn’t bat an eye. He placed the oyster atop a Saltine cracker with a dollop of cocktail sauce — his preferred ritual of oyster consumption — and handed it to me.

It was as though the clouds parted, the sun shone down on my face, and a choir of angels sung harmonies of joy. My life would never be the same.

From that point, I became an oyster fiend, as I still am today. Few things in this life provide me with such a helping of pure, simple, perfect happiness as a dozen raw, cool and creamy in their delicate liquor, with some spicy cocktail sauce (or mignonette, if I’m feeling extra fancy) and a cold beer. And although Pop sadly passed away some years ago and I generally eschew the cracker these days, when I order oysters I always make sure to place one on a Saltine, in Pop’s favorite fashion, and tip my hat to my grandfather for introducing me to something that, to this day, I still find so sublime and life-affirming. Come this weekend, you’d best believe that I’ll be toasting Pop at Oyster Fest, God bless him.

This story always makes me curious, though: Where and when did you first fall in love with oysters?

Native New Orleans food writer Scott Gold, author of The Shameless Carnivore and a blog by the same name, has written for Gourmet, Edible Brooklyn, The Faster Times, and other publications. His Food Porn Friday column for NolaVie offers a weekly mouth-watering photo designed to start culinary conversations in the Big Easy. Catch his weekly food column for The Advocate here.


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