I never had an oyster in my life until I moved to the south. I started with attending oyster roasts, LOVED THEM and once I felt comfortable with those I wanted to try them raw, on the half shell. EXCEPT THAT I DIDN’T KNOW WHERE TO START! If you didn’t grow up eating them, it’s really overwhelming and it can leave you feeling defeated before you start. I am a pretty adventurous eater…so I learned by trial and error and figured out, what I liked and then asked people who were knowledgable to help me fill in the gaps and figure out where to begin (because I was completely clueless and probably looked and sounded like an idiot to any waiter that I encountered). LOL. When I started brainstorming about what articles I wanted to include in my “3o Days of Oysters” feature, this topic specifically was one that was must! There are several great spots around town that serve fantastic oysters on the half shell…we are so fortunate in this town to have so many choices! I asked one of my favorite chefs if he would be willing to sit down and give me the goods on how the beginner gets started with eating oysters without feeling intimidated! BIG THANKS to: Chef Will Fincher from the Obstinate Daughter (located on Sullivan’s Island) for helping me to compile this list and gather information for the beginner…because we all had to start somewhere.
Guide To Ordering Your First Raw Oysters:
1. Ask your server to tell you about the oysters that are being offered on the menu.
2. Start with small or medium-sized oysters. If you haven’t had much experience eating them, it will be overwhelming and uncomfortable to start with the big boys…it takes trying a few before you’re probably ready to handle the larger ones. They are packed with flavor but aren’t as difficult to handle as the larger ones.
3. Where the oysters come from is really important! Oysters are filter feeders and greatly differ in flavor based on the minerals, plankton and grasses they feed on in the water they are grown in. So like most things in life its important to know about: location, location, location!!! Virginia oysters are known for being on the milder side and Chef Fincher suggests starting with these (specifically: Rappahannock oysters). Northeastern oysters have a large variety of flavors, because of their ever-changing water temps. There is a lot of difference in taste from bay to bay so the following are generalizations but will help you have an idea of what to expect when you order. Rhode Island oysters are known for having a sweeter edge, Massachusetts oysters are more buttery and have a lot of bite (once you get more comfortable and start enjoying the differences of taste and learning about the locations-these are one of my favorite areas to order from!) Gulf oysters are very mild and widely used for fried dishes or to make things like, oysters rockefeller and po’ boy sandwiches. South Carolina oysters are very salty (we do a lot of steamed oysters here, but I love my local oysters any way I can get ’em)! Washington State has entirely different flavor references associated with them (often terms like: “light and cucumbery” or “hints of collard greens,” and “earthy” are widely used descriptions).
4. Where to start with all those condiments?!?!? Often the server will bring an assortment of condiments: hot sauces, various mignonettes (vinegar based sauces that are made to accompany the oyster’s natural flavors), lemon wedges, cocktail sauce or strings of freshly grated horseradish. Understanding which one(s) to pair with your oyster is based on personal preference. Truthfully I think it could be compared to preparing your pancakes (some people are traditionalists: butter and plain syrup only. While other people might like blueberry flavored syrup, some others may be syrup connoisseurs and will perhaps only eat syrup from Vermont! Some people don’t like syrup at all and might use a strawberry preserve…or maybe no butter…get the drift)?!?!? What you put on your oyster is based on taste (YOUR TASTE) and the only way to figure it out is to experiment. So here are a few tips to help you understand whats in front of you: what is mignonette sauce? It’s usually a mixture of vinegar, shallots and pepper (there are all kinds of custom-made, fancy ones too) and the point is, its supposed to help balance the brininess of the oyster’s flavor. If you want to try it, you would lightly top the oyster with it (similar to if you did a light lemon squeeze) just remember, a little goes a long way! Hot sauce, cocktail sauce and fresh horseradish all offer a different kick of flavor, it’s fun to try them all and see what you think!
5. What's the proper way to eat an oyster? The oysters will be cut from the shell when you get them, so how you choose to eat them is up to you. You may find a tiny oyster fork at your table setting, if you choose to use it, you’ll hold the shell with one hand and the other hand will bring the oyster to mouth. Or you can just bring the shell to your mouth and give it a little slurp, make it easy and enjoy!
6. WTH do you do with the shells? I’ve seen the shells handled a bazillion different ways! Some people replace them to the ice where each was originally taken from (sometimes shell up or shell down). I’ve seen other people deposit the shells in a separate side bowl. Or set to the side of the plate in a pile. Honestly, I’m sure there is, “a right way to deposit your empty shell” but I don’t know it and no one I talked with during this oyster series mentioned or gave thought to sharing any: “proper shell disposal method.” LOL. Life is really too short to worry about an empty shell-more importantly…lets worry about ordering another dozen :)
Now that you read all of that...Here are my personal suggestions:
Go someplace that is well-known and respected for having a good selection of oysters. Order a dozen, ask the server to bring an assortment (so you can try them side by side and start figuring out what you like). Try the condiments, try all different combinations…experimenting is FUN! Use your hands, forget that cute little fork! Bring that oyster up, give a good slurp and go on to the next one! I never even think twice about where I put the shell on my plate. When I’m done, I always give a little squirt of lemon on my hands and rub them off on my napkin (I’ve never seen anyone do this in a restaurant before-I guess, its just a CHARLESTON FOOD WRITER THING. I like my hands to smell lemon fresh! LOL. Just have fun, enjoy them and be confident. For the love of food…give them a try (more than once)!
Some very cool things about the Obstinate Daughter and Chef Will Fincher
Chef Fincher is definitely a pro when it comes to oysters! He changes the menu up regularly from where he orders and specifically has a process by which he coordinates his oyster board which always offers 3 different regions. A local option when available and in season and then rotates the other 2 locations to provide a variation of flavor to their guests who also enjoy changing it up! Chef Fincher informs the entire staff weekly with detailed notes about each oyster and its characteristics, so that they can share the info with oyster loving eaters who may have questions. He then custom makes mignonettes to accompany the natural flavors and complexity of each oyster. And all sauces are made in-house! Some of the yummy mignonettes that I’ve enjoyed on my visits are things like: strawberry, hibiscus-bay leaf, Habanero & cilantro and the list goes on and on…because he makes custom new ones all the time, using in season herbs and produce. So cool! If you haven’t been to the O/D, you need to go…IMMEDIATELY!
Chef Fincher shared with me that he wasn’t always the oyster pro that he is now. When he began his oyster journey he knew nothing…so he decided to learn everything he could by reading about the different regions and water variations and by experimenting and trying them. See, even the most knowledgeable and talented chefs started at the same place you are now…the beginning. ENJOY!