My birthday was low key this year. We’re still in a pandemic, so there would be no partying, but also I’d just been upstaged by the arrival of my daughter. She came the day before and was still swaddled in the limelight. There was a great Zoom surprise party, but there weren’t any gifts. Or cake.
Until a box landed on my doorstep full of ice, oysters, mignonettes, gloves, and a shucking knife. An oyster kit. No frills. No pricey engraved tray or shooter cups. Just 20 Kaiparas, 20 raspberry points, and the essentials I’d need to enjoy them.
I started shucking immediately. Any avid viewer of Top Chef is sure to perceive oyster shucking as an impossibly onerous task destined to leave any non-chef with a severed artery. Not true. I watched zero YouTube tutorials and was able to muddle through just fine. You slide the knife in, swing it over to the joint, then just sort of leverage the shell open. On the “how cool it makes you feel vs. actually being difficult” scale of tasks, this ranks high.
With a quartine cluster full of people who don’t trust shellfish, I was left to my own devices as the sun set on a very weird year in my life. I shucked and slurped down legitimately 30 oysters — each cold, firm, and briny — before I tapped out and passed the whole operation over the fence to our neighbors. They’re not the “self shucking” sort and were delighted. They also now basically perceive me as a survivalist, because after 30 oysters I was able to pretend to have some level of expertise with popping them open.
All in all, it was a memorable meal in an era when most of what I eat seems routinized. The charm of quarantine life is long gone. I’m over homemade sourdough, as are so many. We all need little stuff like this to keep life surprising and to keep us on track. And with the “months that end in R” just beginning, oysters might just be the perfect fit.
Emphasis on might.
“Do not, under any circumstances, send me raw shellfish,” my editor wrote on Slack when I floated the idea of sending him his own batch of oysters to say thanks for covering me after the baby. “The last time I had a bad oyster, I legit thought I was going to die.”
His concern isn’t unfounded. Bad oysters (caused by the kinda-cool-sounding vibrio bacteria) tear up your insides in a way that no food can rival — to the point where they’re sort of the poor man’s version of blowfish sushi, which can kill you if prepared incorrectly. Roughly 100 people die from bad oysters in the US each year, which is why the CDC warns diners off them altogether. Now take that risk, which already feels noteworthy at oyster bars and seafood houses, and add shipping into the mix.
Sounds precarious at best, right? Not according to Rob Knecht, co-founder of Real Oyster Cult, which farms, sells, and ships oysters direct to consumers.
“No offense to restaurants, because I love restaurants, but they can keep product in their walk-in fridges for a week,” he says. “This is like you’re visiting our family farm — they’re harvested and shipped the same day.”
Knecht has obviously built his business around this concept, so you wouldn’t expect him to say any different, but the logic does hold. As I’ve seen first hand working in kitchens, restaurants get their oysters fresh from farms and keep them chilled. But then they have to wait for you to come in and order them. Overnight shipping (paired with same-day eating) could potentially cut down the “farm to table” time. (Regardless, vibrio bacteria doesn’t have anything to do with those factors, though oysters can go bad for other reasons.)
Even in the face of risk, oysters are clearly moving online and traveling by mail. Fisher’s Island, Hama Hama, Island Creek, Hog Island, Taylor Shellfish… it’s definitely a thing. And according to Knecht it’s a model that’s surging during the pandemic. I run all this by my editor and he balks — “I live near the water, mine are same day and that’s all I’m gonna trust.”
Knecht and his partner/ wife Sims McCormick are very aware of the “bad oyster” stigma. They’ve got three layers of quality control in place, just to combat it. Even their selection is influenced by people’s fears about slimy, loose, spoiled oysters sloshing onto the doorsteps.
“It’s a huge barrier to entry for many people,” McCormick says, “that’s part of why we focus on tighter, smaller oysters with a deep cup and firm flesh — which are an easier entry point for anyone who’s nervous.”
Whether it’s your speed or not, the oysters-by-mail model falls into the new era of provisioning that has been sparked by the pandemic. This past weekend, I bought sashimi-grade salmon, yellowtail, and albacore from a fishmonger who used to supply to restaurants. I picked up my fish and two stylishly-wrapped loaves of bread at his house.
This ex-rugby playing Kiwi (who asked to remain anonymous because of food retailing laws) has been running his little operation for months. He sends out an email Wednesday and you have three hours to order. Then on Friday, there’s a three-hour pickup window. Fail to show, and you’re banned from the listserve. No fish for you.
This time, even I was skeptical. But the thick, uneven cuts of sashimi I made with the product I bought from him are some of the best bites of fish I’ve ever eaten. Better still, I was able to gorge myself three nights in a row for the cost of a single restaurant experience (one sure to be dominated mostly by rice with razor-thin slices of potentially fraudulent fish).
Plus buying everything from someone who only lives a few miles away, chatting about life in the pandemic, our favorite spots in New Zealand, and how this modern-day provisioner sources his product was a very cool throwback to an era I never lived in. It references the days of the milkman and the corner fruit stand. And while shopping that way might sound both inconvenient and expensive, the oysters I received on my birthday and the sashimi I bought a week later were both far cheaper than a restaurant would have been (the artisan bread, on the other hand, is more pricey than it would be at a bakery working at scale).
Speaking personally, I’ve had a lot of fun with this new sort of food shopping. Whether in person or by mail, it’s a piecemeal approach more reminiscent of Italy, where you go to the cheese guy, then the butcher, then the bakery, etc. Like Knecht, I’ll always love restaurants, but I have a feeling that how we love them after coronavirus will change. With the level of at-home dining that you can affordably achieve improving drastically throughout this era, what we want from our restaurants is sure to shift.
In a world where we can get a5 wagyu shipped to our doors, the community, creativity, and convenience chefs provide will be their strongest assets. Not just the ingredients they use.
“We’re bringing a fine-dining experience to people’s homes,” McCormick says. “It makes us happy to offer that in a time when we’re all craving newness wherever we can find it.”
Alas, it’s a type of experience that not everyone is going to buy into. All my raving about our new era of at-home oyster-eating ended with a single four-word Slack message from the boss. “Nope. Not for me.”
Agree to disagree, I guess.