My Wife and I sat in wooden captain’s chairs, our table in the middle of the very busy Olde Dublin Pub, in Charlottetown. The atmosphere was like any other “Irish” pub—green and gold lettered signs, brick facades, tv’s hanging in corners, and a well-stocked bar.
A friendly waiter approached us and took our drink orders, Stella and a Pepsi, before plopping the menus down. I pushed the menu aside and before he had a chance to retrieve our drinks I declared that I was ready to order.
“Oysters, please. I’ll start with 10 for now.”
“What kind do you want, sir?”
Well, I wasn’t aware that there were kinds of oysters. An oyster is an oyster, isn’t it?
The waiter snickered at my bafflement, not in a condescending way, more like Willy Wonka before he introduced a tour group to some exciting new breakthroughs in the world of candy.
“How about I get you a sampler? It will have oysters from all the different regions on our island.”
I agreed that would be best.
My wife had ordered her usual cheeseburger and fries (she’s a very cheap date), and some potato skins for an appetizer. The appetizer arrived promptly along with our drinks. I stuffed my gullet with cheesy potato skins generously coated in salty bacon bits and tasty red onions. I washed each bite down with a gulp from my GIANT Stella, not really taking the time to savour either – I was hungry after all.
After we had finished our appetizer, and I picked the remaining cheese that had melded with the bacon to become encrusted on the platter, I spotted the waiter approaching with our main order.
People at other tables looked on in awe as he slapped a small steel bucket, filled with crushed ice, on the table. I appreciate food that makes you a spectacle, a momentary centre of attention for the people who want to live vicariously through your taste buds, too cowardly to try something new themselves.
Laying on the bed of ice, were 10 gorgeous looking oysters on the half shell, swimming in sea water. Each had a small plaque above it declaring the region it had come from: Bedeque Bay, Colville Bay, Malpeque, Raspberry Point, and Pickle Point.
The waiter pointed out each region for me and gave me a small bowl of their house cocktail sauce and another bowl with some wine vinegar.
I started with the Malpeque, straight no chaser. Unfamiliar with how to actually eat an oyster, I took it like a tequila shot. The shell felt rough against my bottom lip and the salty brine spread across my tongue as the little pearl of meat slipped down my throat. I was rather disappointed to tell you the truth. I took a different tact with the next Malpeque. This time I would keep it in my mouth and chew it, taking the time to savour it. Much better. The consistency of a fresh oyster is miles above the smoked ones I was used to eating. I rapidly ripped through my platter, trying some with cocktail sauce, some with the wine vinegar, and I found I preferred the oysters straight up.
My palate is not refined enough to tell the differences between the regions. At some points I had thought certain ones were slightly sweeter, but mostly it seemed that they varied in size rather than taste. I don’t imagine the copious amount of beer I had been drinking did me any help in my drive to discern a difference, my tongue feeling rather numb in my mouth by this time.
I ordered another sampler along with another Stella and devoured them promptly upon arrival. I was happy, my belly was full, and my glass was empty. I ordered a coffee to close my meal, no dessert, I had already been gluttonous enough. As I poured the cream into my coffee and watched it swirl in strange patterns, I had a thought.
The latest fashions in food are the concepts of organic and eating local. Both are very important, to your health and to your local economies. I believe there is another concept you should consider as you eat your food, and that is how does it connect you to the past?
Jung invented the concept of a collective unconscious and I believe there is something similar to be found with food. Tastes, smells, and textures invoke memories. Whether they are of your Nan’s bonnach baking in a cast iron pan in a wood-fired oven or the smell of gingerbread around Christmas, they serve to transport you back to a moment in the distant or not so distant past. Food can invoke emotion.
In the case of oysters, they have been a staple of most coastal-dwelling peoples. Middens have been found containing oyster shells from prehistoric times. I imagined as I sipped my coffee, what was it like for them, how did they find these wonderous foodstuffs. For a moment I had an image in my head of people huddled around a pile of freshly harvested oysters, cracking open the shells and sucking delicious meat from within. What did they talk about over the meal? They were all smiling in my “vision” and were content.
My hope with this series of articles is to pick the foods and beverages that are common to a majority of people, yet have a colourful or somewhat interesting past. I want you, the reader, to think about the connection as you munch on your cheeseburger (yes, even the lowly cheeseburger has a story) or sup on a bowl of steamy clam chowder.