The world was my oyster - whynow

The world was my oyster 

The Oyster-eater, 1658-60, Oil on panel, 21 x 15 cm, Mauritshuis, The Hague

I ate my first oyster aged 11, at the Grand Central Oyster Bar in New York City. A cursory Google reveals it’s ‘temporarily closed’, just like so many other memory lanes. It was late October 2001 and I was on my inaugural visit to the United States of America. 

My preconceptions of the country were all visual, as they are at that age, and in my mind’s eye, America meant only one thing: skyscrapers. All I wanted to do was go up one, much to the bemusement of every cop purposefully placed at an entrance. I finally got my chance in Chicago a week later.

Grand Central Oyster Bar, New York City

On the 96th floor of the John Hancock Tower, the whole building swayed from the furious autumn winds whipped up atop Lake Michigan. I realised then why they call it the ‘Windy City’, I also developed an acute fear of heights. 

As an 11-year-old boy, New York City was intoxicating: just buying a can of Coke from the ‘drugstore’ felt like you were in a movie. But the enduring memory is of that first oyster. It was a New England native: cold and slimy, eating it felt like jumping headfirst into the Atlantic Ocean and being pulled straight back up again. I was hooked.

From then on, whenever I saw oysters on a menu, I’d beg my mum or dad to let me order at least half-a-dozen. I can only imagine how insufferable a little Fauntleroy I appeared to London’s waiting staff. 

Being a child of divorce (gimme a break) and having a chef for a step father, I spent many of my formative years sampling restaurant food. In a sense, the world was my oyster, and I wanted to eat it.

In a sense, the world was my oyster, and I wanted to eat it.

My love for these bivalve molluscs was primordial and began with their taste. But I’d be lying if I said their rarefied status didn’t have anything to do with the appeal. I knew these things were a delicacy, and I wanted to shovel as many of them into my gob as I could. 

I didn’t know then that oysters once had firm proletarian associations, especially in England and America where, in the late 19th century, thousands of small-time fishermen trawled vast beds in New York Harbour and the Thames Estuary, selling their catch the same day to buyers from the city’s burgeoning restaurant trade.

The story thereafter is of overconsumption and overpopulation. These two modern ills combined to make oysters a rarity, driving up their price. 

When Jonathan Swift said, “he was a bold man that first ate an oyster,” he was most probably referring to the mollusc’s unappealing looks. But if he’d known about how they live he’d have no doubt felt vindicated.

Frans Van Mieris, The Oyster Meal, 1659, State Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg

Oysters are filter feeders meaning they glean required nutrients by sifting water. In areas near high population centres, they are often filtering raw sewage. This is why oysters sometimes harbour nasty bugs like norovirus. 

The incidence of food poisoning caused by oysters is probably higher relatively than any other foodstuff. For some, this danger may add to their allure, it certainly adds to their price. If an oyster’s available on the cheap, it’s probably not worth it.

I found this out to my detriment three years ago. Again, the anecdote involves feats of freedom unimaginable in October 2020. On Friday night, I attended a friend’s birthday party. The next morning, feeling worse for wear, I boarded a train north to go and watch QPR play Birmingham City at St Andrew’s. 

It was one of those blustery February afternoons in which Venice, let alone Birmingham, would struggle to look good. I had to leave the match before the final whistle to travel back south for another birthday being held at Secret Cinema’s Moulin Rouge.

Sandro Botticelli, The Birth of Venus (c. 1484–1486). Tempera on canvas. 172.5 cm × 278.9 cm (67.9 in × 109.6 in). Uffizi, Florence

Despite the shivers of cringe those four words might elicit, I actually had a right laugh in fin de siècle Paris on an industrial estate in Newham. On Monday morning, I was at my desk basking in the frazzled afterglow of a successful weekend’s revelry. 

However, come Tuesday afternoon, I started to feel a bit weird. Eventually, I gave into my body and visited the toilet. Reader, I won’t invite you in further, except to say, there were some fluids. After work, I felt OK enough to travel to my then-girlfriend’s flat for dinner. 

This is where the story, and my stomach, turned. Lying on her bed in the foetal position, roiling in pain, I made the only call I felt I could: mum came and picked me up to take me back to her house. 

The next two days were unlike anything I’ve experienced, before or since. It felt like what I imagine an ayahuasca trip to be like, in Acton: stomach cramps… hallucinations… reverberations…

After a short moonwalk, there could be only one culprit: a chicken burger I’d eaten in a raffish Birmingham diner.

Lying on my childhood bed in a feverish fugue, I attempted to retrace my culinary steps. After a short moonwalk, there could be only one culprit: a chicken burger I’d eaten in a raffish Birmingham diner. Undoubtedly patient zero. 

I returned to my desk the following Monday, a few kilos lighter but smug in my prejudice: of course I got ill in Birmingham! 

Then my phone pinged, it was a message from a friend containing a link to an Evening Standard article. Suddenly, a stomach-acid flashback: I hadn’t even remembered eating oysters at Secret Cinema. This arguably makes the whole episode even crueller.

I shared them with a friend, washed down with a glass of Noilly Prat. You said it. It’s hard to elicit much sympathy for oyster poisoning, even less for oyster poisoning suffered at Secret Cinema Moulin Rouge. 

Three and a half years have passed since that last quaff. Surely a few Whitstable fishermen have gone out of business as a result. 

Scientists say smell is the most evocative sense, but taste must come a close second. Maybe they’re ineluctable. I can still remember the smell and taste of that first oyster back in the smoke-filled basement of Grand Central Station. It was salty, metallic and hitherto unknown. 

I thought I was bold, but really I was being greedy.

Rampa  They Will Be