It all started in the summer of 1985. I was staying on an island off the coast of British Columbia with my parents and grandparents. It was a shockingly beautiful place — a winding circuit of inky black fjords. Bald eagles perched atop old growth pines, waiting for the perfect salmon to snatch out of the water. The cliffs tumbled into the sea where they gave birth to walls of dank seaweed, rife with shellfish, for the waves to bash against night and day. Not a bad place to be five.
That summer my grandfather talked me into eating something I’d never tasted before, an oyster. On the south side of the island he’d found a beach that was one huge oyster garden. We each grabbed a bucket, filling them in a matter of minutes. I couldn’t lift mine, so my grandfather carried a bucket in each hand as he led the way back to the house.
The next day, beside the fire pit, I learned how to shuck an oyster. Next, they went into a pale red cocktail sauce my grandma had whipped up earlier. Then my grandfather threw a few onto the old oven grate that was propped up over the fire. He instructed me to watch them carefully and yell when the top valve of each oyster rose, releasing a bit of steam. I shouted that they were opening and my grandfather came over and plopped them all on a plate and quickly applied some garlic butter and a fresh squeeze of lemon. Lunch was served.
I boldly shook my head when my grandfather held out a tiny fork and insisted I try one. They looked like pale slugs, which no five-year-old is going to be stoked on eating. But the old man was having none of that sh*t. I still remember him saying, “You have to try everything twice! Once to know what it tastes like. And again in case the chef screwed it up the first time!” I closed my eyes, held my nose, and slurped a little oyster into my mouth. It was salty, briny, buttery, spicy, and gooey. The gooey bit threw me, as it does for so many.
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I chewed and swallowed, not wanting to let the old man down. He offered me another one and I shook my head vigorously. Then he offered me the raw ones, still swimming in the cocktail sauce. They looked like bloody slugs. I ran to the safety of my mom at that point. He just smirked and said, “You’ll love ’em one day, boy!”
He was right. Over the next 30 odd years I’ve eaten a lot of oysters around the world, but none of them will ever be that first one my grandfather gave me in 1985.
The oysters we’re familiar with today are a very old species. 200,000,000 years ago, the mollusks living on the coasts and in brackish backwaters, would be indistinguishable from those we eat today. It’s kind of cool to imagine that when we eat an oyster, we’re eating something a dinosaur may have eaten.
The oldest known cultivation of oysters date back at least 4,000 years ago, in Japan. However shell middens (prehistoric garbage dumps) off the coast of British Columbia show that humans were eating oysters at least 10,000 years ago. Ancient Romans were also in on the oyster game and had large cultivation areas on the French and British coastlines.