The sacred bite - oysters and others

"O Oysters, come and walk with us!"
The Walrus did beseech.
"A pleasant walk, a pleasant talk,
Along the briny beach:
We cannot do with more than four,
To give a hand to each."
- Lewis Carroll, The Walrus and The Carpenter

Today is National Oyster Day.

I have lately had a passion for oysters, raw and glistening on the half shell. Their brininess seems like the purest possible taste, the sea in my mouth, a gentleness against my tongue and palate that vanishes and leaves only a memory of the ocean. Yet I find them troubling, or, more accurately, I find my consumption of them troubling.

Let me say here that I eat meat (and if you read this blog then this is no surprise to you). If that offends you please stop reading now; I am not interested in converting you or being converted. I eat meat mindfully; I have been a vegetarian. I find I am healthier and happier if animal protein is part of my diet. I am grateful for the animals I have eaten and will eat. Equally, I understand that life comes from life. I must eat things that lived to live myself.

There is a thin line between eating something fresh and something still alive. We want our food to be as fresh as possible, so sometimes it gets pretty blurry. Most of the time we don’t think about it or, if we do, it’s in terms of convenience and flavor. Wilted lettuce will revive in cold water because of capillary action. Is it still alive because it draws water into itself? What about that tomato you just picked from the vine? As the juice runs down your chin, do you stop to think that a moment ago it was still pumping fluid, gestating seeds? We don’t think about this with vegetables because the line between actively alive and dead is more of a gradation.

With the higher animals we eat, the line is clear; dead is dead and tasty. Most of the time we encounter these foods that were once alive as dissected and wrapped, so we needn’t even consider their formerly alive states. Parts and cuts, filets and organs, all separate from the animal they once composed. Even if we encounter these animals as closer to whole before we eat them, if they aren’t moving they are probably dead and easily consumable.

Ah, but oysters…

It is inadvisable to eat a raw oyster that isn’t freshly shucked. To shuck an oyster you insert a knife into the closed shell of the living bivalve, sever the adductor muscle so the shells can be separated and remove the top half of the shell, leaving the oyster exposed. The shells are beautiful, the animal itself is soft, grey and immobile. Does this immobility mean it’s dead, albeit freshly killed for my convenience? I don’t know. Different authorities tell me different things. Some say the act of severing the adductor muscle and forcing the shell kills the oyster, others say it remains alive for a limited time. All suggest it doesn’t feel pain as we understand it. I hope not.

When I was a child and hadn’t yet developed a taste for raw oysters, my parents brought home raw clams and shucked them. I wanted to try one. As I slide it between my lips, my father said, “You know, that’s still alive.” I haven’t eaten a raw clam since; I say it’s because I don’t care for the texture, but I know it’s because the little girl inside me is still horrified. Now, I know that there is a good chance the oysters I so enjoy are still alive though immobile*, but I can eat those with relative abandon. How?

I think the key to eating any animal, barely alive or dead, is this: I try to approach it with gratitude and not take its life for granted. I try to eat it (and most of my meals) mindfully. When I can, I try to eat foods that were well treated before they died for me and I don't forget that this food was once alive. The ground beef came from a cow. The chicken is, well, a chicken. The tomato grew from a seed and stretched its leaves to the sky. The oyster filtered water and had its cool, secret life for years before it ever found its way to my plate.

I am grateful. And in my gratitude, each bite is richer, their lives given for mine. Each meal is a sacrament and I realize the oyster is as holy as any creature in the world.

(c) 2011 Laura S. Packer

*I know there are cultures that enjoy delicacies so fresh, so alive, that they are still moving. I am not judging these foods, but I think it would be a challenge for me to eat something still moving, were it not a matter of starvation.

Image: Girl Eating Oysters, 1658, by Jan Steen. Courtesy of wikimedia commons.


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