I ate my first oyster when I was, I think, twenty-three. It was on Nantucket. My newly cohabiting boyfriend was younger than me, had just graduated from college and had gone off to visit Paris with his best friend Bob. I understood that they had been talking about this trip for a long time and had not (really… ) expected to be invited; besides, I had to work… that was the story I told myself.
Anyway, perhaps aware of my hidden dismay about the situation, my sister and brother-in-law invited me to join them for a weekend on Nantucket. They were very young themselves, way back then, and it was a big deal for them to take a week in such a lovely, and expensive, place. They had rented a little house right in town. I took a train to Boston, a bus to Hyannis and then a ferry to Nantucket Island. I was surprised at how long the ferry took to reach Nantucket, not called the faraway isle for nothing, but the sail gave me all the time I needed to listen to sad music on my Walkman and feel oh so deeply about it all.
But then we docked, I had a wonderful time and am grateful to my benefactors for showing me the lovely island and introducing me to some really wonderful food there. One day they took me out to a restaurant on a dock and ordered oysters. I remain surprised that I decided to try an oyster that day: I was most suspicious of such a dreadful looking thing, but somehow it was calling to me. It was not that I always avoided a food adventure, it was just that my food experiences until then had been rather limited.
I grew up in a rather peculiar family (well, don’t we all?). When I was little my parents always said that I only had to give a food “one try.” The first “one try” I remember is endive, but it was the sweet salad dressing in which I drenched it that I actually enjoyed. It was nice. I don’t think they were wrong about insisting that I try a bite before turning down a food. I did find it odd that the bites that I was required to try were all of a certain type.
My mother grew up in a family dominated by its Sicilian side, and that always was the kind of food we were served at family get-togethers. My Italian grandfather would never eat anything more adventurous than lemon sole and asparagus (he claimed stomach issues). When I was quite young, my father (who was emphatically not Italian) would never consider anything but a French restaurant when we went into Manhattan to dine, which was fairly often. I don’t remember much about the food from those days other than the chocolate mousse. I definitely liked the chocolate mousse. My parents would also go for the occasional Northern Italian restaurant, but if and only if live jazz was involved, so the choice doesn’t really count in culinary terms.
When I was growing up my parents used to like to serve smoked salmon with capers and lemons for Sunday brunch. While eating the salmon we would listen to this old record of two British fellows who sang funny songs. They were called Flanders & Swann and they sang about Bedsteads and that The English Are Best and Wouldn’t Give Tuppence For All of the Rest. Sometimes a Norwegian friend of my parents would bring over an entire smoked salmon that he had caught and smoked himself (I never knew where he caught these fish, but they were cool to see).
With all this salmon swimming around you would think there might be a bagel or two in sight. Well no, not one. In fact, I never ate a bagel until I went to college in Manhattan. Or for that matter, I never tried Chinese, Mexican or Japanese food until I went off to college either. I remember my intense embarrassment when I first went to Chinatown with a bunch of friends. Even though I had grown up only 40 minutes outside of New York City, I was the only one among us who had come from places much farther away who had no idea how to use chopsticks. Then again I did awe them with the fact that I had tried Celery Remoulade.
When I was young there was an advertisement for Philadelphia Cream Cheese that both my husband and I remember really well. It showed a wealthy, Waspy gentleman being served a bagel by his valet. He remarked “A Bagel? What’s a Bagel?” Well, my father may have been a history professor teaching in Queens, but that gentleman could have been him. My husband first noticed the resemblance--the same person who left me to go to Romantic Paris with his friend Bob (I don’t carry a grudge by the way).
Back to the first oyster: The weekend on Nantucket was lovely and the oyster was the first of dozens upon dozens that have passed these lips over the many years. The next time I would eat an oyster, however, would be some years later in New Orleans, at Jazz Fest. Once again it was my sister and brother-in-law who introduced me, and this time my husband (who was not off in Paris without me) to city and festival alike. (You may discern a pattern here and I will move on to Rhode Island in a later essay.) We ate oysters at Jazz Fest and I was overwhelmed by the ease with which I downed a dozen more at the pleasantly scuzzy Acme Oyster House. I was addicted.
My daughters love oysters too; you may remember the same girls who would never eat anything but pasta. They tried their first one at Mystic Seaport when they were only twelve I think. Later I took them to visit Tulane University when they were considering colleges. They fell in love with New Orleans from the moment we got off the plane and the love only deepened after we eagerly and easily shared three dozen oysters plus three… they couldn’t get over the thirteenth oyster, a little New Orleans lagniappe.
So, I will always be grateful to my sister and brother-in-law for talking me into taking just one bite and trying that first oyster, sitting on a dock in Nantucket while feeling sorry for myself, but in reality by then I wasn’t really feeling quite so sorry for myself any more: Nantucket, docks, oysters and there might even have been beer.