[encore] 740: Shucking Oysters

[encore] 740: Shucking Oysters

[encore] 740: Shucking Oysters

This episode was originally released on August 15, 2022.


I’m Ada Limón and this is The Slowdown.

I love oysters. I love the ritual of them. The tray of a dozen or half dozen arriving on ice, the lemon, the cocktail sauce, the classic mignonette. In a topsy turvy world where chaos and trauma abound, there’s something about the tradition of ordering oysters, and eating oysters, that seems sophisticated, ceremonial.

I haven’t always been able to afford oysters, but if they are an option, I love how fresh oysters can taste as if you’re simply inhaling the ocean itself. Once, when I was in New York, I went to the Grand Central Oyster Bar on the main floor of Grand Central Station, tucked away from the madding crowd with dark wood walls and bar seating conducive to the lone traveler craving good seafood and a beer before heading back from whence they came. The Grand Central Oyster bar opened three weeks after Grand Central opened its doors in 1913 and with its arched ceilings covered with Spanish tiles, it’s still one of my favorite spots in all of New York.

If you sit at the counter, you can watch the line cooks shuck oysters and chat with them as you wait for your order. It’s not precious or too cool for school or even overly upscale but for some reason, it’s one of the most sensual restaurants I’ve been to. Oh right, I know why it’s sensual… Oysters. Who can deny the aphrodisiacal draw of the oyster, the feminine power that pulses beneath the shell? There’s something sexual about the oyster and there’s no other way to say it.

Today’s poem honors the sensuality of eating an oyster for the first time. I love how it activates all the senses and lets us experience the event right along with the speaker.

Shucking Oysters
by Khalisa Rae

All my life I’ve avoided live 
squirming things—those of sea and salt.
Convinced everyone, even myself,
I was allergic. Swore my stomach
would recoil, turn tops, if I even tasted one.

The stench of ammonia and algae,
veins and bulging eyes, the raw pink
flesh, the wet and slime.

Still, I was drawn to their shellfish
skin, their sheer iridescence—the throbbing,

The first time an oyster lay on my table,
I stared, eyes gaping at the halves,
anticipating the feast.

Clumsily, I twisted and squeezed,
trying to force them from their silvery shell.

I waited for the waiter to instruct me:
Coax the hinges to open,
lay it down on a cloth surface,

I had only seen people in movies
prying to expose 
the delicate center, then lifting shell
to mouth, tilting their heads back
in ecstasy.

Gently separate with a utensil,
slide your hands along its edges
until it pops up from its shell.
It will be swelling and ready.

I lifted the membrane
to my lips and let my tongue travel
the ocean. Breathed.

There will be a rush of salt and sea;
the flesh should be firm in texture,
brimming with natural juices.

I flipped over the shell to reveal
a pearl, shimmering and marvelous
in its ridges and imperfections.

Oysters should be tasted with your nose,
she said.

Breathe. Just breathe.

"Shucking Oysters" by Khalisa Rae, from GHOST IN A BLACK GIRL'S THROAT copyright © 2021 Khalisa Rae. Used by permission of Red Hen Press.