A pleasant walk, a pleasant talk, along the briny beach.”
— Lewis Carroll, “Through the Looking Glass”
It is September. An “R-month.” So now, according to tradition, it is safe to eat raw oysters.
Or at least it was before man and mankind started putting stuff in the water that got into the oyster beds. Thanks to those dangers, today even the most devoted oyster-eaters will pause before shucking and say a prayer not only for what they were about to receive, but also for protection from it.
Now, I am sure there are some of you gentle readers who would not eat a raw oyster if I put a gun to your head.
You are still trying to figure out how anyone came to eat one in the first place.
It probably happened like this. Two Native Americans look down at the open shell.
“I dare you.”
“Not bad. How ’bout another?”
The rest, as we say in my profession, is history.
Folks have been eating them ever since.
In the fullness of time, raw oysters became more than a food. The sacramental slurping of them became part of an initiation into a coastal culture where people did things “normal” folks didn’t do.
Over and over again, usually on spring break, the ritual of passage was repeated.
“You eat it.”
Right on to the “slurp” — followed by “not bad,” or “gag.”
Alcohol was usually involved.
My initiation, though different, was no less significant. I was about 12 and stone-cold sober when I swallowed my first. It was a moment that changed my life.
In the 1950s, on the shore of Choctawhatchee Bay, members of the Freeport (Fla.) High School Future Farmers of America did not plant and harvest cotton or corn. Being bay boys, they harvested oysters. To raise money for worthy FFA projects, they set up oyster stands along the roads coming into town. They were simple affairs — storefronts (like Lucy’s psychiatric booth in Peanuts) and a long table (a couple of boards on sawhorses). Stools were on one side. On the other were tubs of iced-down oysters and a tub of soft drinks and beer. On the table were crackers, catsup, horseradish and hot sauce.
There was no health department sticker posted because there was no inspection. Nor was there a liquor license anywhere in sight. The boys shucked the oysters. Their fathers sold the beer.
For years, when an R-month rolled around, my daddy, my Uncle Canoy and other available men would drive the 15 miles from our cottage on the coast to Freeport. They left the women and children behind. I was one of the children.
Then came the day when Daddy asked me if I wanted to go.
Every boy, and I suspect every girl, has such a moment of crisis in their lives, that moment when they are called upon to man (or woman) up, knowing there was no choice but to do it.
So, I got in the car.
Soon after we crossed the bay, we saw the first one. Lit by a string of bare bulbs, it seemed to almost hover above the ground in the glow. We stopped.
Daddy gave me the basic instructions cracker, oyster, red sauce, down the hatch.
I ate one — condiments covered the taste.
I ate another — lighter on the sauce, a little oyster flavor coming through.
Looking around for approving glances and nods, what I saw instead were serious men bent to their task, without cracker or condiment — just them and the oysters.
Then a family came in — a husband, wife, son about my age, a daughter in her early teens. They sat at the end of the counter and ordered a dozen each.
The husband ate them like my daddy did. The wife took the cracker and Tabasco approach. The boy followed his mother’s example. The daughter picked up the half-shell, put it to her lips, tilted it back and let it slide.
I was in love.
And being in love, I had to do what my beloved did.
For the rest of the evening I matched her oyster for oyster. I do not think she ever noticed me, but I continued on the hope that if she did, I would measure up to her standards.
Driving home later, Daddy remarked to no one in particular how I was a natural when it came to raw oyster-eating.
I could tell he was proud.
So, to the girl at the end of the table, slurping and smiling, I want to say “thank you,” wherever you are.
May your oysters always be plump, and a little bit salty.
Harvey H. (“Hardy”) Jackson is retired Eminent Scholar in History at Jacksonville State University and a columnist and editorial writer for The Star. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.