Earlier this week, a heat wave blazing through Vancouver killed millions of mussels, snails, and clams; they were boiled alive in their shells. Meanwhile, all over Instagram, other bivalves met a different kind of fate: Oysters, glistening in half-shells, sat pretty on enviable beds of crushed ice.
What makes oysters such a striking visual? In part, it’s the dichotomy of the harsh, rocky shell with the tender, pearl-yielding interior. It’s a tension that can so easily turn oysters into a metaphor for pretty much anything, reflected in the way we talk: “the world is your oyster,” “coming out of your shell,” or “clamming back up.” It’s no coincidence that all of these expressions are coming in extra-handy in this weird time of Re-Emergence™.
Think for a moment of this common American summer tableau: a cheerful clique in seersucker or linen, gathered around a tray of oysters, clinking sparkly glasses dripping with beads of condensation. It’s the kind of experience you might force yourself to partake in because “you have to” or because “how can you not.” It's all part of the familiar pressure to go out, rejoice, have fun, and just do things — that also seems to boil us alive, popping our shells open as the world around us also “goes back to normal.” It’s a stark contrast, these grid photos of oyster platters, to the content that fueled Instagram last summer, when our days and nights (and feeds) were full of righteous riots and historical rebellion and reinvigorated calls for prison abolition. But, these oyster orgies are not necessarily the simple endorsement of a consume-be-happy-it’s-summer they might first appear to be.
Oysters have a long, fascinating history in America, one that was not always tied to elite consumption. Netflix’s recent docuseries on the origins of African American cuisine, High on the Hog, highlighted the story of Thomas Downing, a Black abolitionist who popularized oysters, first in New York City, and then throughout the world. Prior to Downing, oyster bars in New York were mainly basement establishments, frequented by working-class men (the only women allowed in, it seems, were prostitutes). Often owned and operated by Black Americans, oyster bars were not frequented by the city’s elites until Downing transformed the industry with his own establishment — which was also a stop in the Underground Railroad. He died one of the wealthiest men in New York City, his oysters having traveled to the table of British royal family, and is credited for having changed culinary history, making clear that oysters are fit for a queen.
In a recent Vulture profile, none other than rap royalty Saweetie helped herself to a tray of oysters, as she talked about “planning her empire.” After tasting one, the pop star, a talent in the dawn of her career, said: “Wow, I can eat this for the rest of my life.” With that one bite, it felt like this summer met last summer, and folded onto so many summers before it — all brimming with potential.
If you haven’t yet committed to tasting your first raw oyster this summer, you might want to seriously consider it. Christina, a 25-year old photographer, grew up in a family that often indulged in raw oysters, but being a picky eater she wasn’t brave enough to try one until her friends road-tripped to Chelsea Farms Oysters in Olympia, Washington in May. “They were so fresh! So delicious, and the flavor was very subtle but impactful,” she told Refinery29. “I had so many oysters that day!” She said part of the reason she decided to try oysters was that she’d developed an appetite for whatever new experience she was presented with during lockdown, “I’m very comfortable in my shell,” she explained, “but I wanted to throw that out the window.”
Not all oyster experiences are created equal, though, and if your Re-Emergence Summer has been a far cry from a Hot Girl Summer full of sex and oysters, you might better relate to Jody, a 37-year-old teacher from Wisconsin. Jody tried oysters with a big group of family and friends, and told Refinery29 that not only did she love them, but also that her toddler, “slurped one down and chewed on the shell.” Later that night the baby had “Poltergeist puked” all over the table. “Will I have oysters again?” Jody asked. “Maybe. But I’m doing research on the place first.”
Still, eating oysters isn’t just about eating oysters. Such is the symbolic power of the mollusk that many of the people who enjoy eating them are in it for more than just the taste. Eating raw oysters is first and foremost, a sensual experience. At worst, that sensation is akin to eating boogers, but at best, it can be compared to a certain slick pleasure center many a human body possesses. In mid-September, clips and GIFs from Netflix’s Ratched, started circulating, in which Cynthia Nixon as Gwendolyn teaches Sarah Paulson’s Nurse Ratched how to eat oysters. “Now swallow,” Gwendolyn instructed, lifting a half-shell to Ratched’s trembling lips. The scene reminds us that some of life’s most indulgent pleasures are an acquired taste. Sure, it’s slimy and mucous-y, but it can make you feel so, so good.
Twitter is all over oysters’ symbolism in this weird era of Re-Emergence™: “i really love raw oysters but it’s basically going ass to mouth with the whole fucking ocean.” The replies to this tweet are a goldmine of ass-to-mouth wisdom, where there seems to be agreement that the best way to eat a raw oyster is to drown it in acid and spice, make it even wetter.
It’s all enough to drive someone like me — a raw oyster virgin, because I’m allergic to shellfish — crazy, as I constantly imagine what kind of briney, The Lighthouse-type of delirium it would be to actually taste one. Alas, this summer, I'll instead aspire to be a pretty little oyster on a bed of ice. After all, we aren’t staying home all the time anymore, and even though it can be jarring to feel like our lives have now been abruptly shucked open again, there is no going back, lest we risk being boiled alive in our shells.