The other day I was reflecting on memorable food experiences: the dishes that never disappoint at favorite restaurants (can I get an amen for the roasted rice cakes @ Momofuku?), exotic meals in foreign lands, unusual but interesting flavor pairings, and of course, those first times you taste something that rocks your world. Like that other “first time,” such experiences can be seminal moments.
Growing up in a tiny western New York town, practically a galaxy away from the food mecca of Manhattan, my future foodie’s palate was woefully underdeveloped and underexposed. While there were, and still are, lots of good cooks in my family, their culinary exploits at the time rarely ranged beyond standard meat-and-potatoes type fare: pork chops and apple sauce, beef stew, sloppy joes, roast beef on weck, goulash, and my childhood favorite, beef stroganoff. My nose still perks up at the thought of the delicious aromas that would escape the bubbling crockpot my mother often used. This type of cooking was about comfort and practicality, far from the realm of “cuisine” so accessible to middle-Americans today thanks to the likes of Iron Chef, Top Chef, and their ilk.
Although it felt like cruel and unusual punishment at the time, I’m sure that my father’s unrelenting insistence that my brother and I at least try everything on our plates (and refusal to allow us to move from the table until we’d done so) is partly responsible for the adventurous palate I have today. Luckily back then, I was just sneaky—and angelic—enough to get away with dropping a few hated Brussels sprouts down the toilet after stealing them away from the table in my pockets. My pocket disposal strategy was certainly less messy than my brother’s more melodramatic gag-vomit scheme, although his methods were equally successful in achieving the end goal of not having to eat a hated food (in his case, eggplant Parmesan).
Years later, thanks to jobs that sent me to different parts of the country and required a fair bit of entertaining, a nagging wanderlust that took me to far corners of the world, a year in culinary school, and several years of living in Manhattan, I had endless opportunities to explore new ingredients, dishes, and cuisines.
One such exploration took place at the hands of my friend Jonathan in Washington, DC, when I lived there back in the mid-90s. The scene of this revelatory first-time experience was Kinkead’s, a brasserie-style seafood restaurant in Foggy Bottom. We sat in the more casual downstairs bar area, and I remember ordering a delicious tuna tartare with avocado. Jonathan ordered oysters on the half shell. The sight of raw oysters had reviled me for years, so it was with some surprise that I suddenly found myself feeling interested and daring enough to try one. Reader, I was not disappointed. The taste was unlike anything I’d ever had before and almost instantly intoxicating. Winemakers obsess over terroir, or sense of place, seeking the perfect expression in their wines of the soil, climate, topography, etc. of the region where the product is produced. The best oysters also convey terroir, revealing the influences of the waters where they originate. Salty, cool, refreshing, sweet, glistening, and plump—I can think of no more perfect expression of the sea than an oyster. Its mysteries unfold on the tongue in an almost mystical way. One taste, and I was forever hooked.
Since then, I’ve shucked, slurped and savored oysters with such abandon that I’ve sometimes astonished dining companions by my seemingly bottomless capacity for the slippery mollusks. I’m a bit of a purist, so I think they’re best enjoyed on the half shell, perhaps but not always, adorned with a whisper of lemon or a drop or two of mignonette. You’ll never find me drowning their delicate flavors in spicy horseradish or Tabasco sauce (a travesty!). MFK Fisher called oysters “a lusty bit of nourishment” and wrote that:
“further north, men choose their oysters without sauce. They like them cold, straightforward, simple, capable of spirit but unadorned, like a Low Church service or maybe a Boston romance.”
So what if oysters can kill you; so can a lot of other things. If my time is up, I can think of worse ways to go than indulging in a few dozen oysters. Of course, all it takes is one, but since the guilty party often announces itself on the tongue or in the nose, there’s ample time to heed the warning and take action. Nothing’s going to stand between me and my oysters.
“He was a bold man that first eat an oyster.”
– Jonathan Swift, Polite Conversation
With that, I leave you to ponder your own “first time” experiences. I hope your culinary epiphanies and memories are as vivid and pleasurable as my own.