While the myth about not eating oysters in the months with no “r” in their names is just that, a myth, there’s no doubt that oysters are at their best in fall and winter. This is because they spawn over the summer and, like many of us during breeding season, become unpleasantly soft and mushy. If you’ve never tried one, now’s the time.
In Shakespeare’s Merry Wives of Windsor, Pistol says, “Why then the world’s mine oyster, which I with sword shall open.” Pistol knew you couldn’t get at the pearl without shucking the oyster. Oyster shucking is not especially difficult, if you know what you’re doing. Opening these bivalves involves a lot of skill—not just brawn, but finesse too. You have to know precisely where to insert the oyster knife to pry the shell open quickly and easily, without using too much force lest your knife end up in your wrist (an inherent danger of shucking).
And about those pearls—natural pearls are very rare indeed. Most pearls these days are cultured: beds of farmed oysters are wedged open slightly, a pearl “seed” is placed inside, the oyster produces layers of a soft, shiny material called nacre to cover the irritating seed and, poof, a pearl is born.
As oyster aficionados attest, there need not be a pearl inside for an oyster to be considered a treasure. There are myriad ways to enjoy these molluscs, starting with straight off the half shell. Once you have your oyster shucked, smell it—a fresh oyster (like most seafood) will smell of nothing but a mild salty sea fragrance. Anything stronger, and the oyster should be discarded. Oysters should be plump and firm, and the shell should have quite a bit of liquid inside. Taking care not to spill this liquid, run the shucking knife under the oyster to detach it from the shell. Now, tilt the shell to your lips, and let the oyster slide right out of the shell and down your throat, and you’ve enjoyed an oyster the way it was meant to be eaten.
If, like Woody Allen, you’re not into raw oysters (“I like my food cooked, not wounded”), then you can prepare them any number of ways. Perhaps the most famous is Oysters Rockefeller, in which the oysters are topped with a mixture of spinach, breadcrumbs, Parmesan cheese and seasonings, then broiled. The dish earned its name because it’s so rich, like John D. Rockefeller. At least that’s what the myth says.