There are far more oysters in the Pacific Northwest than there are intrepid eaters who've chanced eating the bivalves raw. Despite our region's global reputation as an epicenter of oyster culture, raw oysters remain on many local eaters' never-tried lists. In this occasional series, Voracious takes on those lists, asking experts how first-timers should approach relatively common foods that give them the willies. Rather than probe the finer points of exotic offal appreciation, we'll uncover what makes mayonnaise, oozy cheese, and oysters so repugnant to otherwise adventurous eaters--and how they can summon the nerve to take just one bite.
Visitors to the Hood Canal often assume they've stumbled upon a miles-long raw bar. Hama Hama Oyster Company's Lissa James says local residents quickly correct them.
"There isn't much of a raw-oyster culture among local people," says James. "I've had trouble finding people to work in our retail store and talk about raw oysters in a way that's at all appetizing."
According to James, eaters raised around the Hood Canal grill, steam, or fry their oysters, dismissing raw oysters as slimy and slippery. James deals with complaints about texture by serving skeptics very cold, small oysters with a squeeze of lemon. She suggests new oyster eaters forgo the lemon juice and "actually chew on the second go-round."
"If your goal is just to say you did it, you're just going to get salt," James explains.
Many oyster abstainers attribute their nervousness to health concerns, citing scary stories involving fatalities. Between 1989 and 1996, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention linked 75 deaths to Vibrio vulnificus, a bacteria that flourishes in the Gulf of Mexico during hot summer months.
While the effects of Vibrio are graphically illustrated in Carlos' Tragic and Mysterious Illness, a pamphlet issued by the Food and Drug Administration, physicians classify the infection as uncommon. "Most healthy people don't get sick even if they are infected," the American Academy of Family Physicians reports. "People with liver disease, kidney disease, or diabetes can get very sick if they are infected."
For eaters who struggle with the concept of eating a living creature, James stresses the mystical aspect of oysters. "I wax poetic," she says. "There's something a little sacrificial, a little magical about a raw oyster. It's alive, and it connects us to the oceanic food chain."
James isn't moved by squeamish eaters who wonder aloud who was the first "brave caveman" to eat a raw oyster. "I tell people that people have been doing this for millennia," she says, citing food writer Rowan Jacobsen's theory that humans derived the Omega-3s they needed to develop their massive brains from shellfish such as oysters.
"To me, raw oysters are celebratory," James says. "It's an experience."
Her message is apparently reaching her staff members, who she concedes are "getting a little better."
"It depends on the mood they're in, but we have started selling oyster shooters," she says. "We couldn't do that a couple years ago."