The secret life of oysters

We love them or loathe them, gorge on them or feel sick at the sight of them. And it's been going on for millennia. This bivalve rocks. And tomorrow is its day of days. Rebecca Stott relates the cultural (and sexual) history of nature's snottiest delicacy

Sunday 31 August 2003 00:00 BST

For me, oysters will always be accompanied by shards of Grand Central Station. I ate them there with my son in the very early hours of an April morning on arriving in a New York whitened by a late-spring snowstorm. Sitting on high stools at the subterranean brick-vaulted bar, studded with fairy lights, we ordered Pacific oysters from a blue painted board, oysters which had been shunted in by train from all over America with names that conjured maps and fragments of half-forgotten American history: Asharoken, Bluepoint, Buzzard Bay, Chincoteague, Fire Island, Matinecock, Mohegan, Moonstone, Westcott Bay. Sipping Chablis, we played at putting oysters' tastes into words as food writers would do: "briny, notes of mineral, grass and fruit... citrus with a touch of metal... like licking a copper pipe". We were laying down a perfect memory.

Tomorrow is the first day of September, and so, the first of the oyster season. Since the 15th century people have avoided eating oysters except in months with an "r" in them. Initially this was probably for health reasons (oysters turn more quickly in hot weather) but since the 18th century governments have legislated against summer gathering to allow the oyster beds to regenerate - oysters spawn in the warmer seas of May, June, July and August.

The very first law was passed in New York in 1715 which made it an offence "from and after the first day of May until the first day of September, annually to gather, rake, take up or bring to the market any oysters whatever, under the penalty of twenty shillings for every offence". Only Native Americans were exempt - they had been harvesting oysters on the shores of the East Coast for thousands of years.

Now that hatcheries are used to breed young oysters, or "spat", it's possible to eat Pacific oysters all year round, but the tradition still holds and most of the oyster festivals around Britain - Galway, Whitstable, Clarenridge, and Falmouth - take place in September or October. Thousands will gorge on that wet white flesh cupped in a petticoat-ridged shell. It is, I find, curiously difficult to do so without recalling a particular time and place in which you have done so before. And among the still-life of remembered objects, there will doubtless be lemons, a basket of bread, champagne, crushed ice, bottles of pepper sauce or horseradish. And the smell of the sea.

It is a perfume embedded in human history. Oysters were eaten in vast numbers by prehistoric man on shorelines in Scandinavia, Africa, Mexico, America, Japan and China. They left the remains of their meals in vast shell middens. At some point on all of these shorelines someone had been curious enough to lever open the shell and slip the raw meat into his or her mouth. Brave soul, that first oyster eater.

The Romans, who adored oysters, used pack horses to carry theirs from northern European coasts across the Alps, packed deep in baskets of ice, snow and hay. A Roman entrepreneur, Sergius Orata, was determined to have his own supply and established artificial oyster beds at Baiae, near Naples, in 95BC. On the shore, overlooking the beds, he built a palace where he threw long and decadent parties at which thousands of oysters were consumed and then politely regurgitated by guests using peacock-feather throat ticklers in an adjoining room. The Romans used ground oyster shells in skin ointments; they were used to make roads and, when mixed with figs and pitch, to mend their baths. When Roman soldiers around AD78 found exquisite native oysters on the shores of Kent and Richborough, British oysters became the white truffle of the Roman table.

Railways, which brought my oysters to Grand Central Station in New York, were central to the history of man's relationship with the oyster. Gradually, as the rail networks laced their way across America and Europe, the oyster turned from being the food of the epicure to that of the poor man. They could be brought straight into industrial areas in ice-filled railway carriages. (In 1904 Chekhov's body was mistakenly shipped back to Russia from Germany for his funeral in an ice-filled train carriage marked "For Oysters".)

This easy availability brought a drop in prices and oysters became the fish and chips of the urban poor. "It is a very remarkable circumstance, sir ... that poverty and oysters always seems to go together," notes Sam in Charles Dickens's The Pickwick Papers (1836). But ultimately the railway threatened the existence of the oyster. It became virtually impossible to conserve supplies, even with laws to protect the oyster breeding season.

* * *

Silent and inert they may be, but oysters have a dramatic life story. Each specimen that reaches your plate is to be marvelled at, for only one spat will survive from a million born. Over the past few "r-less" months, while the British have flocked to the sea to cool off through the heatwave, oysters have been spawning out there in the oyster farms of British estuaries, bays and coves. And pretty spectacular it has been too - storm clouds of sperm and eggs ejected into the sea from the encrusted oyster beds. Most spat are eaten by fishy predators before they begin to form shells, but if the young oyster survives its two weeks of free-swimming, danger-ridden freedom, it will attach itself to the nearest hard object - which in the wild may be a rock, a mangrove tree, the post of a pier or even the shell of another oyster - and "settle down".

If the oyster is born into a farm, its cultch (the "home" laid down for the oysters to attach to) will depend on where it is in the world. In France, for instance, it may be a lime-coated tile; in Japan a submerged bamboo wigwam; in a Norwegian fjord it may be bundles of suspended birch twigs.

Once firmly anchored, the oyster spends its days feeding by pumping litres of seawater through its body and straining it for plankton. For a human being this would be like drinking the contents of a large swimming pool between one dawn and the next. After three years the oysters are large enough to eat.

They are prolific because they have evolved - fantastically - to swing both ways. They are male for the first year, fertilising a few hundred thousand eggs in the first summer, but then "he" becomes a "she" and then "she" a "he" up to four times a year depending, some say, on the vagaries of water temperature and salinity. No one knows quite how the oyster does this.

In Sarah Waters' novel, Tipping the Velvet, Nancy, the male impersonator, is raised in her father's seaside restaurant. While shucking oysters, she is told by her mother that "they had found me as a baby in an oyster shell, and a greedy customer had almost eaten me for lunch". When she sees a male impersonator at a local music hall, her life of sexual transformation begins. Nancy, like the oyster, perhaps because of her "oysterish sympathies", turns and turns, performing her male-female sexuality in music halls, in alleyways, in louche drawing-rooms and in brothels.

When oysters are mentioned, the word "aphrodisiac" invariably floats into view sooner or later. Do oysters increase sexual desire or potency? Probably not. The belief may have something to do with the high zinc content of the meat. It may be based on the oyster's ancient association with Aphrodite, born from a shell, or, of course, it may have come about because of the sexual resemblances of the meat itself. The Parisian photographer Bianca Sforni created a series of oyster "portraits" in 1993 in which the oysters are "sexualised enough to make Mapplethorpe's lilies blush" in grainy matte-textured photographs of two feet high. Oyster flesh, wet and gaping, fills the frame like an opened flower.

Think of oysters, think of acts of appetite in all its forms - even of gluttonous bravado. Casanova fuelled his passions on 60 oysters a day. When Alice hears of all the oysters being eaten up on the beach by the Walrus and the Carpenter in, she ponders on which of the oyster eaters is morally most reprehensible: the carpenter for eating only a few without remorse or the Walrus for eating so many more but with remorse.

Dando was a notorious London oyster thief who could not stop thinking of oysters, it seems, and had no remorse. He would go into oyster shops without money, sit at the counter and order, then eat, dozens of oysters. Eventually, he would be recognised, arrested and imprisoned but upon his release he would be straight back into the local oyster bar. He died in prison and was buried in a grave paved with oyster shells.

Stories abound, too, of a French or Spanish (no one can agree) oyster woman who won a bet that she could eat a dozen of them washed down with champagne on each stroke of midnight. That's 144 oysters.

And yet for many, the thought of oysters makes the face grimace, the flesh creep. They are in fine company. Woody Allen claimed, "I will not eat oysters. I want my food dead - not sick, not wounded - dead." Vanity Fair author William Makepeace Thackeray described eating a plate-sized oyster as "like swallowing a live baby". Oysters are borderlines. Raw food of both bohemian epicure and prehistoric man, half male, half female, desired and abhorred, looking at once like an open wound and translucent erotic flesh revered for its beauty by the finest Dutch still-life painters, it fattens on the littoral zone between land and sea.

But for the rest of us, if you want to lay down some fine memories of sea flesh eaten with friends in splendid or eccentric interiors I would recommend Wheelers or Greens of St James, Bibendum on Fulham Road, the Butley-Orford Oysterage in Suffolk, Fishworks in Bath or perhaps one of the Loch Fyne Oyster Restaurants, the Royal Naval Oyster Stores or Wheelers in Whitstable.

Then again, why not book for one of the oyster festivals or, if you have time to fly, visit the Oyster Bar in Grand Central Station, New York? And before you swallow, take a moment to contemplate the strangeness and beauty of the oyster on your fork, described by Seamus Heaney as "the split bulb/ And philandering sigh of the ocean".

Rebecca Stott is a radio broadcaster and writer. She is writing 'Oyster' for Reaktion's new Animal series, to be published next year

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