The satirist Jonathan Swift said it took a "bold man" to eat an oyster, that opalescent, slippery snack.
Roughly 300 years later, we seem to be awash in bold men (and women) — at least judging from the popularity of raw bars and oyster happy hours.
"You notice it by the number of oysters you go through," says chef Michael Scelfo of Russell House Tavern in Cambridge, Mass., where it's not uncommon for late-night diners to take advantage of the $1-an-oyster happy hour and engage in friendly competitions to see who can slurp down the most.
Oysters make a great late-night snack, says Scelfo. "They're fast; they're cold; they go great with beer; they go great with wine or a craft cocktail." And let's not forget that whole alleged aphrodisiac thing. "There's just kind of this air of mystery to oysters, which is just cool," he says.
Interest in oysters seems to dovetail with two food trends. One is the move toward adventurous eating — tongue, anyone? The other is the general interest in getting the back story on foods and searching out different varieties — think heirloom tomatoes. True oyster fans know their Belons from their Beausoleils and talk like wine tasters about things like hints of melon and clean finishes.
"It's part of the new interest in foods that are authentic and deeply connect to place. Oysters are the opposite of supermarket food," says Rowan Jacobsen, author of "A Geography of Oysters: The Connoisseur's Guide to Oyster Eating in North America."
Chef Parke Ulrich of the Waterbar restaurant in San Francisco, which recently served its one millionth oyster, offers 20 varieties of oysters, including Cove Miyagi, farmed by Scott Zahl of Cove Mussel Co. in Marshall, Calif. Zahl, who has a day job, leaves coolers of oysters on Ulrich's back porch and the chef brings them into work.
Knowing the origin of an oyster "really creates a sense of place," says Ulrich, who refers to oyster environments as "merroir," a play on the French wine-growing term of "terroir." So, an Olympia, from South Puget Sound in Washington state, is "metallic and mineral-y" while a Beausoleil, from New Brunswick, Canada, is "very briny and clean."
Waterbar takes a liberal interpretation of happy hour, featuring one variety at $1 apiece from 11:30 a.m. to 6 p.m.
When eating an oyster, some customers will say they're reminded of playing in waves when they were kids. "It takes them back to those memories of their childhood or growing up or special moments. I think it's pretty special," he says.
Oysters still are a niche market. A National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration report based on 2009 figures ranked shrimp as the No. 1 seafood of choice in the United States.
What's changed has been the growing popularity of raw oysters as opposed to the old model, where oysters were generally shucked on site and packaged for consumption, says Margaret Pilaro Barrette, executive director of the Pacific Coast Shellfish Growers Association, based in Olympia.
"In the last six years or so there's been this renaissance of, 'Let's enjoy this oyster as it comes out of the shell,'" she says. "A lot of raw bars have opened up, providing the consumer with an opportunity to taste raw oysters from different parts of the country."
In response to the new demand, oyster growers have changed cultivation practices, farming the mollusks in a way that allows them to move with the tides. This creates a deeper cup to the shell so the shucked oyster maintains more of its natural juice, known in the industry as liquor.
By the way, the assumption that oysters are only safe to eat in months with the letter "r'' in their English names is not true. Oysters may taste different during those months if they are spawning varieties; however, these days growers have the option of using non-spawning varieties.
There are some safety issues relating to the temperature of the water oysters are grown in and the industry is regulated nationwide with requirements applying to refrigeration, transportation and harvest practices, says Barrette. However, as with other raw food, there is some risk in eating raw shellfish especially for people with compromised immune systems.
Raw oysters may be getting most of the attention, but the bivalves also are plenty popular cooked.
At Island Creek Oyster Bar in Boston, in addition to the raw bar there's a Build Your Own Slider option where guests choose the sauce and toppings they want on a lightly fried Island Creek oyster served in a brioche bun. "It takes the late-night oyster experience to the next level and guests love the interactivity," says owner Garrett Harker.
Island Creek has a constantly changing list of 12 to 18 oysters from both coasts, as well as their namesake Island Creeks from Duxbury, Mass. —Island Creek Oyster Farm founder Skip Bennett is a part-owner in the restaurant. The traditional progression is that diners start with the raw bar and move on to cooked dinners, but Harker instituted an oyster-heavy late night menu after seeing a post-dinner crowd looking for drinks and snacks.
Oysters, especially raw, might be considered an adult taste — it's not for nothing Swift came up with his famous quote, "He was a bold man that first eat an oyster." But both Scelfo and Ulrich report their young sons — ages 9 and 10 respectively — enjoy a good oyster.
Ulrich's son has learned to identify East Coast vs. West Coast oysters by the shape of their shells. And Scelfo's son is such a fan that if he should balk at eating some other dish, "we just tell him there are oysters in it," Scelfo says with a laugh.