Sometimes, oysters taste like triumph. Like when my fifth grade teacher challenged my class to eat a cold, slimy oyster at the raw bar in Quincy Market during a field trip to Boston. He didn’t think any ten year-olds would take him up on it, but I did. I don’t remember what it tasted like, really, but I do remember buying 10 dollars’ worth of fudge from another vendor with my winnings to cleanse my palate.
Sometimes, oysters taste like fancy. When I was 26, one of my best friends led me through the expansive main dining area of the Grand Central Oyster Bar, past the long, white counters, under the soaring Guastavino tiled vaults, into the Saloon, a tiny, wood-paneled bar. Nautical décor adorns the walls, and aproned waiters make their rounds to a dozen or so red-and-white checked clothed tables. It felt like we were sneaking back in time, back to the mid-twentieth century. It felt like secrets. It felt like Man Men. It felt like I might see my parents there as they once were – young, vital, fresh-faced. The bartender was an older gentleman, with that particularly brusqueness-that-almost-seems-like-rudeness I was used to in my New York City life. We ordered a massive amount of oysters in pairs from places near and far, and compared them to each other while sipping light, crisp beer. Grand Central Terminal is a place always in motion, with its own currents and tides, as true as any body of water (at least until a train breaks down). When we walked out of the restaurant, our bellies full and our heads swimming just a bit, I felt the glee of being with a friend in a sea of strangers, alone and together all at once.
Sometimes, oysters don’t really taste like anything except what you put on top of them. Six months ago, I moved to Alabama, where there are plentiful oysters, but they’re all from the Gulf of Mexico. Supposedly, there are different kinds in the different bays of the Gulf, but to me, they all just taste like warm-water oysters (so, like nothing). They often have a million other little shellfish stuck to their shells. Once, we went to an oyster bar downtown to head off the Sunday afternoon blues, and I felt something odd on my tongue as I went to slurp down an oyster covered in cocktail sauce. It was a tiny, grey pearl. I kept it for luck. Mostly, I felt lucky that I hadn’t cracked a tooth on it.
Mostly, oysters taste like memories. My mother spent her formative years in Maine, where most of her family still lives today. After my father died, my mother, my little sister, and I journeyed north from Connecticut for a string of summers, staying with my grandmother and making the rounds to visit all of my mother’s cousins. My mother is of French, Irish, and Scottish descent, so she burns just thinking of the sun. We never spent much time at the beach growing up. However, in Maine, my mother could read in the house while we swam in the lake ten feet from the front door, or send us to the beach with the army of cousins surrounding us.
Summer in Maine is magical. Warm days, cool nights, hoodies with shorts and flip flops. Maine was the first place I had French fries with malt vinegar on them, bought at a stand on the boardwalk. I’m pretty sure the ocean water in Maine never really warms up; in August, it can still make your lips turn blue if you’re in too long. New England beaches are harsh and rocky. It can sometimes feel like a triumph to make it to the water, where more rocks and sharp shells await your feet. Our motel rooms at the beach always smelled like the ocean. At the end of a day playing in the ocean with my sister, I would suck the salt out of the wet ends of my hair.
There was a time when my husband didn’t eat oysters. We were out at a bar that had them available by the dozen, and I tried for the hundredth time to convince him to try them. “They taste like summer,” I said. “They taste like the perfect day on the beach.” Now, he’s an oyster fiend. We went to Atlanta for a concert a few months ago, and stopped in at a dimly lit bar late at night. They had oysters. Oysters from Nova Scotia. We ordered some, and chatted with the man who was shucking them while we waited. He told us jokes about people from Alabama, which, I didn’t have the heart to point out, is basically the same as Georgia.
Why do ducks fly over Alabama upside down? There’s nothing worth crapping on.
I put the tiniest bit of horseradish on one of our exotic Canadian oysters, and put it to my lips. Immediately, I was back in Maine, sun warming my summer-browned skin. I was in Queens, where, twice a day, the tide would bring saltwater and the scent of the ocean up the East River and into my neighborhood. I was 17 and skipping school in May to go fry on an empty beach with my girlfriends. I was 28, my husband had moved 1100 miles away to Alabama, and I was with those same girlfriends – who now had spouses and babies – drinking too much in a tiny house a block from the beach, sleeping on a second floor deck with a view of a tiny sliver of ocean beyond the clotheslines. I was that gloating fifth grader in Boston. I was sitting on a patio in Alabama at 28, wondering what the hell I was even doing. And I was just me, tipsy on local beer in a tiny bar in Atlanta, eating oysters, wondering what was next.
Shaelyn Amaio thinks everyone is weird to everyone else. She spends most of her Internet time on twitter, Instagram, and tumblr, where she mostly gabs about quirky attractions, theme parks, museums, and her cat. Shaelyn lives in Montgomery, Alabama with her husband, but is still mourning her recent breakup with New York City.