It is possible to have an epiphany while experiencing an oyster luge, in which one rinses the liquor from an oyster shell with booze then sends it down the hatch. The journalist and author Georgette Moger-Petraske had one in October 2012, standing on a sea-sprayed pier on Islay off Scotland’s west coast alongside a rogue’s gallery of fellow writers — and absolutely certain that she hated Scotch whisky.
“A woman comes out with a tray of oysters and instructs us to eat them first and leave the liquor in the shell,” Moger-Petraske recalls. “She pours a little Ardbeg single-malt Scotch into the shell. Suddenly, I’m not getting gunpowder or band-aids; I’m experiencing Scotch in a different way: orange peels, saline, ripe bananas and fresh-baked bread. The saline in the oyster liquor completely opened up the Scotch.”
Why did this footed bivalve plucked from the cold, brackish North Atlantic uncover the aromatic and flavor nuances of a peaty, high-octane spirit born on the rugged Inner Hebrides?
Oysters aren’t for everyone. As Anglo-Irish author and satirist Jonathan Swift wrote of these polarizing mollusks in 1700s Dublin: “He was a bold man that first ate an oyster.” It’s likely that said brave chap (or lass) had help from a little liquid courage. Indeed, since time immemorial, it’s rare we humans have thrown back a raw oyster without some kind of nip, be it a long-stemmed glass of Champagne or a condensation-beaded lager. Maybe to indulge in this slippery acquired taste demands an accompaniment that lowers our inhibitions a little. Or maybe one really does make the other more beautiful, even occasionally transcendent, like all great pairings can. Or maybe it’s just another metaphor, like oysters seem to be for so many things. The only way to know is to take the plunge and try it.
Moger-Petraske, who co-wrote “Regarding Cocktails,” sensibly explains the twofold reasoning for the oyster-Scotch epiphany: that diluting Scotch with a few drops of water takes away the spirit’s burn and allows us to discern other flavors. Likewise, adding salt to food brings out its nuances; and oyster liquor is naturally saline.
“So together you have the water to soften the Scotch and the salt to bring out flavors — such as bitter, sweet, or savory — that we may not have detected amongst all the peat and smoke flavors,” she says. Moger-Petraske now offers this same epiphany to whomever walks through the door of her Murray Hill apartment for Regarding Oysters, a weekly salon where she teaches the arts of oyster shucking and slurping, and classic cocktail construction.
Still, I can’t help but get caught up in the magic of consuming these things in tandem: one perhaps the purest edible expression of a place, the other a place’s distilled essence, achieved through heat, fermentation, and age. For centuries, the sensualists among us have not only eaten, but considered, the oyster. We’ve composed songs, art, stories, idioms, books and films about it, and developed lore surrounding its aphrodisiac qualities.
“An oyster is one of the most direct products of its environment that you can consume,” says Kat Dennis, a partner of Motorshucker, a roving Chicago raw bar and catering company, with fellow hospitality vets Mico Hillyard, Cub Dimling, and Jamie Davis. “There’s so little process; you’re tasting the environment, that’s it.”
Not content to indulge solely in the mollusks’ unfettered raw form, we often insist on enhancing those slick little gray bodies with mignonette, a squeeze of lemon, or a spritz of edible bergamot and geranium cocktail perfume, when in Moger-Petraske’s company. Most inextricably, we redouble the pleasure and mystique of oysters by washing them down with booze: a glacially cold gin Martini, a crisp lager, a glass of light, saline Muscadet.
“It’s just such an upper, so refreshing, you know? There’s so much in there that’s good for you. You eat them, you feel refreshed and revitalized. And there’s a reason you drink a lager when you’re hung over; there’s something revitalizing about that, too.”
“I feel like it gets back to the heart of pairing,” says Dennis, the former beverage director of natural wine shop Red & White Wines. A musician growing up, Dennis preferred playing accompaniment or secondo, as wine often does for food. “Food comes first, both agriculturally and in terms of what our bodies need,” she says. “But there’s something beautiful about the accompaniment and making something already beautiful more so — coming around it in the same way that an orchestra playing in concerto plays around a pianist.”
Alcohol has played secondo to the oyster for hundreds of years, though not always with the aim of delivering epiphanies. When an Englishman named Charles MacKay visited the United States in 1857, he observed that the only class difference in America was between people who drank Champagne with their oysters and those who washed them down with beer, according to a 2001 New York Times article.
In those days, New York was exporting more oysters than any other state, including to the royalty in Britain. Indeed, oysters were so abundant on the East Coast that they fed rich and poor Americans alike — in saloons and hotels, at markets and streetside stands. They were stewed, fried, and preserved, but the preferred form was raw — seasoned with pepper, salt, and lemon juice or vinegar — and washed down with a nip. New York’s Canal Street in the mid-1800s was a center for oyster cellars, oft-rough subterranean joints known for peddling all-you-can-eat oysters for 6 cents. Customers did, to the tune of several dozen in one sitting.
Oysters were beloved in the Midwest, too, since their arrival in the early 1800s on horse-drawn oyster wagons with ice. As a candidate, Abraham Lincoln was known to host oyster parties. The bivalve’s ubiquity only swelled with the arrival of rail in the 1850s, when New York-style oyster bars popped up in cities around the Midwest. The Boston Oyster House, at the corner of Clark and Madison Streets in Chicago, offered some 42 oyster selections; in 1893 a dozen raw oysters there cost 25 cents.
With the decimation of New York beds by the early 20th century due to overuse and pollution, alongside the rise of post-World War II technological innovations that made flash-frozen shellfish widely available, the pervasiveness of oysters in the U.S. faded by midcentury. Scarcity rendered them a delicacy mainly for the wealthy.
Reclaiming What Was Long Lost
It’s not that surprising that oysters became a symbol of the uneasy re-emergence from our lockdown shells and an opulent return to dining out as the pandemic began to wane in 2021. Beyond the showy hedonism of a tray of glistening oysters on the half shell, to indulge in an oyster is to briefly reconnect with the pure pleasure of being alive.
If Dennis isn’t drinking a Martini with freshly shucked oysters, her favorite pairing is an ice-cold lager — which also reinforces Motorshucker’s mission of bringing oysters back to the streets through pop-ups at neighborhood bars and music festivals.
“It’s just such an upper, so refreshing, you know?” she says. “There’s so much in there that’s good for you. You eat them, you feel refreshed and revitalized. And there’s a reason you drink a lager when you’re hung over; there’s something revitalizing about that, too.”
An oyster is indeed a nourishing little thing, rich in zinc, iron, and omega-3 fatty acids. And though this protandrous mollusk’s life is a brutal one — poetically documented by M.F.K. Fisher in her 1941 book “Consider the Oyster” — he’s also a natural hedonist.
“He manages better than most creatures to combine business with pleasure, and from this stream of water that passes through his gills he strains out all the delicious little diatoms and peridia that are his food,” Fisher wrote.
An oyster is difficult to harvest at the best of times. Moger-Petraske’s best friend Meg Dowe, a 10th generation Long Islander, is an oyster farmer at sustainable farm Yennicott Oysters, which she started with her husband Cam in 2013 to continue her family’s century-old connection to oyster farming. Yennicott’s oysters are savory and crisp, grown in the pristine waters of Little Peconic Bay and Shelter Island Sound.
“I went out with Meg a couple times, helped her pull in cages and sort oysters, and really saw what backbreaking labor goes into harvesting oysters for these farmers,” Moger-Petraske says. “Winter is one of the best times to enjoy oysters because the water is so cold, and it’s absolutely unforgiving conditions. Seeing it firsthand and knowing how much work goes into what arrives on the plate really opened my eyes to exactly why I enjoy this so much.”
So she bought a vintage bar and recreated a piece of bygone New York in her home mid-pandemic, empowering small groups each week to throw their own oyster parties by learning to shuck and shake a few fine cocktails in the presence of fellow sensualists.
“There’s something intangible to it; I think about it all the time.”
Motorshucker originated during Covid, too, when Dennis and co-founder Hillyard began sourcing oysters directly from Fishers Island Oysters, Dimling’s family’s sustainable oyster farm and hatchery on Block Island, to support them and make a little money while restaurants remained dark. Fishers Island, located two dozen miles from the eastern tip of Long Island, produces oysters that are firm, savory, and deeply briney — with umami like the stormy sea.
I’ve appreciated them in an oyster luge at a Motorshucker pop-up at Chicago rum bar The Bamboo Room, when I splashed a bit of my Rum Martini into the shell. The oyster liquor supercharged the grassiness, pineapple, and grilled banana flavors of the Grenadian and Oaxacan rums and the almondy fino sherry. But I’ve also thrown Fishers Islands back with a Miller High Life while sheltering beneath a tent on the back patio of Sportsman’s Club during a summer downpour. Both experiences demanded pause: Why did the oysters’ briny umami pair so well with grassy tropical fruit or crisp, bready effervescence? More importantly, they opened my eyes to the magical present, like feeling salty sea spray on my face.
“There’s something intangible to it; I think about it all the time,” Dennis says. Like music that hits just right, or riding a motorcycle with the wind whipping at your face, there’s transcendence in the oyster secondo, be it wine or the peatiest Scotch. But you won’t know until you taste it. “You can read all the books, talk about it, but things aren’t going to develop in your personal life and give you pleasure unless you experience them in real time.”