Feb 04, 2010|
The first lesson I learned about knives was that you shouldn’t have the blade pointing directly at one hand while pushing the handle with your entire body weight using the other hand. But that’s the kind of quasi-suicidal technique I had to use to shuck an oyster.
Hongkongers, it seems, are obsessed with the oyster. The bivalves rival even the popularity of Hainan chicken rice and wonton noodles. Try elbowing your way through to the oyster bar in any hotel buffet, and you’ll see what I mean. This is true especially during these winter months when the oysters that have spawned in the summer are now mature. (What was that old saying again—something like only eat oysters in the months that contain the letter “r”?)
This FebRuaRy, I wasn’t answering the siren call of the all-you-can-eat oyster fest. The voice I heard was that of Michael Pollan, who besides writing the transformational book “The Omnivore’s Dilemma,” also wrote a New York Times article called “Out of the Kitchen, Onto the Couch.” It asked readers to do the opposite, though—get off their sofa, and behind a stovetop. Pollan points out that, ironically, as fascination with food grows, people are becoming less interested in actually cooking.
Watching iron chefs peel potatoes is so much more fun than peeling potatoes yourself. And it’s not just because people are getting lazier. It’s because some parts of cooking downright suck. They can be tedious or disgusting. Or they can make someone say: “I feel like I might skewer this slightly dull knife into my palm”—which is what I kept repeating to myself in my head, and eventually out loud. “Yes,” came the response by the cook next to me at The Press Room’s new oyster bar. “It can happen.”
Suddenly, the blue latex glove I was wearing seemed a pathetic opponent against the steel of the knife. Weren’t there oyster gloves that look like oven mits made with Kevlar? Where were those in real life, away from the film sets and TV hosts with a long list of safety clauses in their contracts? The glove they eventually found for me can only be described as the medieval “knight’s armor” version. It’d have to do.
This is how you shuck an oyster: with the weird metal gloved left hand, hold down the oyster with a towel. Jab the oyster knife into the hinge (where the shells attach) with the right hand. Wiggle it to find the “sweet spot.” Pop it up. Slide your knife through the flesh to cut off the connecting muscle. And consider that sucker shucked.
Add in some swearing beneath my breath and a few drops of forehead sweat, and that’s pretty much how it went down for me. But there were no final pearls of wisdom about the joy of cooking lodged inside the oyster shell. Just the remnant pieces of shell grit I had chipped off during my clumsy shucking.
Laid on a bed of ice and garnished with some lemon slices, the White Pearl oysters are known for their crispy texture and slightly salty zing. Call me crazy, but it tasted a bit like blood, sweat, and tears to me. I suppose that’s the flavor all chefs detect in the faint undertones of the dishes that require them to endure the painful “sucks like shucking an oyster” parts of the cooking process. For the diners sitting outside, it simply registers as delicious.