Knee-Deep in the Brine

Plucked fresh from the water and eaten raw, a wild oyster has the power to ruin you for any other kind.

(Illustration by Stan Fellows)

CRAVING OYSTERS AND HOPING TO cure cabin fever, I filled my car with camping gear and drove the four hours from Charlottesville to Cape Charles on the Eastern Shore, where the water is as briny as the open ocean.

I set up my tent at a campground and went down to where the water gently lapped at the sand on the outgoing tide and scrambled around the rocks of a jetty, where oysters jutted out like the scales of a pinecone. Draped in shrouds of seaweed and algae, they’d be easy to dismiss as food.

I pulled my first oyster off by hand, slicing a finger open in the process, then pried the top shell off with a knife before slicing its abductor muscle to free the meat. I poured the oyster into my mouth, raw and unseasoned, other than a bit of seaweed. It was bright and briny and tasted like every good thing in the entire bay had been distilled down into this tiny shell.

In 15 minutes, I gathered about 50 more in a bucket, prying clusters apart with a garden trowel and slicing my fingers open all over again.

Back at camp, I ate a few more raw and then built a fire over which to roast the others.

I followed a recipe by the great James W. Parkinson, a Gilded Age chef I discovered while doing culinary research for a Smithsonian article. Ever since, I’ve been searching archives for Parkinson’s lost recipes, testing many. His oysters have inspired me the most.

Following Parkinson’s method, I roasted each oyster over the fire for about 20 minutes. They were easy to open, keeping the cupped side of the shell down, so as to retain the precious liquor. Onto each opened oyster, I placed a little part of what Parkinson insisted be “the purest and freshest of butter,” followed by a squeeze from “the brightest yellow of lemons,” and a dash of cayenne.

Tossing it back while still steaming hot, I forgot all of my problems and forgave all of my trespasses, closing my eyes and inhaling the scent of the empty shell as I chewed and swallowed.

I finished the first flight in quick succession, then placed another half dozen on the grill.

Around my third flight, I noticed two women silhouetted in the window of a nearby RV, watching.

“I’m sorry, don’t mind us,” one of them said. “Would you like an oyster?” I asked.

“No thanks. I don’t eat them. I just love watching you cook and eat them.”

Tossing it back while still steaming hot, I forgot all of my problems and forgave all of my trespassers.

The next day, after slicing my hand open a few more times, I dug out a pair of crabbing gloves from the trunk of my car. This time, I ate a few dozen raw before starting on the roasting. I held back on hot sauce, not wanting to overpower the clean, briny taste. Just a squeeze of lemon juice, which stung deep in the gashes in my fingers, like little bolts of electricity as I slurped each perfect oyster.

On my third night, I shucked and fried them in butter, just dusted in flour, cayenne, and fresh black pepper. It wasn’t what Parkinson had called for, but they melted in my mouth, with the natural brine providing all the sauce needed.

The last morning, when I returned to the rocks to gather more oysters to take home, four children spotted me and waded over to find out what I was doing. They marveled when I explained that oysters could be eaten raw. The oldest, a blonde-haired boy of about 12, asked to try one.

I cracked open a slightly curved three-incher with gorgeous white mother-of-pearl and navy-blue accents. The boy tilted the shell into his mouth and his eyes lit up. “Whoa, that’s really good!” As I carried my heavy bucket across the sand, sunburned, with my fingers still stinging from the saltwater, I felt a sense of guilt.

For the rest of his life, this boy will eat oysters. He will eat them at backyard barbecues and order them in bars and restaurants. And like a junkie looking to re-create his first high, he will never taste another oyster so perfect as the one-handed to him by a stranger, knee-deep in the brine.

This article originally appeared in the August 2021 issue.

June 11, 2022

Star Gazing and Laser Nights

Virginia Living Museum
July 9, 2022

Star Gazing and Laser Nights

Virginia Living Museum
August 13, 2022

Star Gazing and Laser Nights

Virginia Living Museum