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Naked is the best way to eat oysters

Don’t mask flavor oysters with cocktail sauce. | Sun-Times

Don’t mask flavor of oysters with cocktail sauce. | Sun-Times

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Updated: April 1, 2012 8:03AM

December through April is prime oyster season.

Sitting down to a big platter of the creatures with Steve LaHaie of Shaw’s Crab House, I marveled at the range of flavors and textures presented by salty Island Creek, creamy Blue Pools, sweet Hog Island and crunchy Harpswell Flats oysters.

Though some oysters are more costly to source than others, Shaw’s charges the same for all of them because, LaHaie said, “We want to eliminate price as a factor in customer choices so people will be adventurous.”

In Shucked, Life on a New England Oyster Farm, Erin Byers Murray recounts her own adventures at Island Creek oyster farm. Murray explained to me her strategy for savoring the distinct flavors of different oysters.

First off, smell the oyster. “What people love most about oysters is the taste of the ocean. When you smell an oyster, it opens up your palate to all the flavors it holds.”

“Eat oysters naked,” Murray counsels, meaning without cocktail sauce. In Chicago, people get all worked up over ketchup on hot dogs, but cocktail sauce on an oyster can be even more damaging, concealing the subtle flavors oystermen work to nurture. A lemon squirt might “bring down brininess a notch,” but cocktail sauce’s pungent tang is just too much. Go commando.

Drink the liquid from the shell. “Much oyster flavor is in the liquor,” Murray explains. Too often, shucking is considered kitchen grunt work like peeling potatoes, but “shucking is an art,” protests Murray, “and accomplished shuckers keep as much liquor as possible in the oyster shell.”

Chew the oyster. Some think it best to suck down oysters without chewing, but Murray told me that biting the oyster “releases sugars in the belly meat,” so you can savor the oceanic succulence.

Finally, swallow and repeat.

For the uninitiated, LaHaie suggests that Island Creek oysters are good beginners’ models, manageable in size with delicious saltiness.

My dining companion at Shaw’s thought she didn’t like oysters, but after our big plate, she became an instant convert (we forgave her for using cocktail sauce). If you must have cocktail sauce with oysters, do as LaHaie and eat some on bread to cleanse the palate without concealing each oyster’s distinctive taste.

David Hammond is an Oak Park writer and contributor to WBEZ (91.5 FM) and E-mail

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