“Sex, Death and Oysters” is a book inspired by Texan journalist Robb Walsh’s expose on oysters from Galveston Bay, an article for the Houston Press by the same title. With Valentine’s Day come and gone and the New Amsterdam oyster benefit in full swing this weekend, Walsh’s book comes just in time. Whether you’re looking to amp up your already withering romance with a natural aphrodisiac post February 14th, or just looking for some pointers before heading out to the festival, Walsh’s brash humor and genuine obsession with oysters will certainly get you in the mood.
One chapter into the book, I had made the decision that Robb Walsh is not only a spirited writer, but also the perfect candidate to have a beer and a couple dozen oysters with. A reader feels fully acquainted with him from the outset. His candid approach to the saltier side of human nature, coupled with natural wit, would yield any reporter some rough pearls of wisdom. His grasp of oyster history and culture is immense, and though he strives to makes things simple for the reader, it is easy to get lost in exhausting nuance. There is no international grading system for oysters, and species identification is an exceedingly murky business. It takes years for an oyster to mature to full potential, and distributors often source their oysters from a number of different locations. Oysters are then “finished up” in a distributor’s local waters and are all sold under a new name. Unless a consumer really knows what he’s doing, it’s easy to be fooled. Walsh meets with a host of oyster authorities, and every conflicting account sheds further light on the realization that nothing in the oyster industry is really certain.
Walsh presents himself as an enthusiast and nothing more, and his “research” was undoubtedly performed with gusto. He travels throughout the United States, England, France and Ireland in pursuit of the perfect oyster, often with his family in tow. He takes the Acme Oyster House’s famous oyster challenge, managing to slurp down 15 dozen oysters in two hours, accompanied by intermittent gasps of horror from his teenage daughter. He manages to wrangle a table at Antoine’s, the notoriously exclusive birthplace of oysters Rockefeller in New Orleans, and both him and his two daughters find the dish disgusting. While learning to shuck oysters in Paris, Walsh mistakenly makes his pregnant wife horribly ill by neglecting to properly dispose of the shells, leaving them instead in a trash can right by the heater. He surreptitiously feeds his 19-month-old daughter her first oyster while guiltily glancing at his wife’s back. One can only imagine the hopeful suspense that Walsh felt while his tiny daughter chewed, and the immediate deflation when she did not prove to be an instant convert. His passion for oysters is palpable, and though the reader happens to find his various offenses entertaining, his family is undoubtedly presented with regular cause to voice their grievances.
If Walsh’s life is any indication of an oyster’s potency as an aphrodisiac, his wife is cited as pregnant twice throughout the years of his research. Though the book is not dedicated to this aspect of the oyster’s reputation, it is a fundamental aspect of man’s continuing love affair with the bivalve. There are many ways to look at an oyster, and many reasons are given as to why it is an object associated with human lust and desire. “Eating raw oysters is at once perverse and spiritual,” writes Walsh. “A freshly shucked oyster enters your mouth while it is still alive and dies while giving you pleasure. As I savored the wonderfully slick texture, the delicate briny flavor, and marine aroma, it was easy to see how oysters came to be associated with the tenderest portion of the female anatomy.” I’m not too sure about the marine aroma bit, but Walsh certainly gave the topic much thought, and he is not alone in poetic appreciation for the oyster.
The parallel between woman and oyster has been cited throughout centuries of literary tradition, and the modern portrayal may, for better or worse, be most aptly summarized in the history of the Starfish, Toronto’s first Oyster bar. Opened in the 1980’s, the Starfish was “somewhere to loosen up and get naughty,” says owner Rodney Clark. The walls are plastered with both artistic and not-so-artistic portraits of women “in various states of undress.” It was sanctuary from the rigid Wall Street types and other members of the “straight-laced bunch.” Walsh finds the perfect oyster with Clark, who likens its size to “a large breast in a small brassiere” (charming). More tastefully known as the “Sand Dune,” this strain of oyster is found near Prince Edward Island, and gives Walsh the closure he seeks after years of research and traveling.
Though Walsh may sometimes appear crude and generally offensive, it is difficult to remain aghast for long. Oystering is a messy business, and Walsh is the best person to tell the story. Unlike his wife, whose tastes range somewhat above dank oyster bars and saltine sleeves, Walsh is wonderfully suited to the brinier side of oyster investigation. It takes a large personality to stare down an avid oyster farmer and to directly question the integrity of his business, but Walsh does it. His complete lack of pretension and childlike delight when presented with a tasty specimen dispel any bad feelings. Walsh’s eagerness is infectious, and readers will find themselves back at the oyster bar for another go if they hadn’t already been converted by the ancient innuendo.
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