It’s February and love is in the air. It’s well-established at this point that I have a favorite foodie I’m continually out to impress with my newfound culinary skills. So, as days fly by and we hurtle towards Valentine’s Day, I’m faced not only with preparing a meal to woo the lady, I’ve also taken on oysters as my We The Eaters aphrodisiac-themed post.
Yikes! Have I ever mentioned I’d never tried seafood before I met my sweetheart?
And, while oysters are probably the most infamous aphrodisiac, trying them for the first time seemed a bit daunting. OK … Completely terrifying. I mean, have you really looked at a raw oyster?
I gave serious deliberation to preparing and cooking a meal. It was my intention to try out a recipe from allrecipes.com that sounded delicious: grilled oysters in fennel butter.
But then, that’s not quite right, is it? Really, it’s raw oysters that presumably have the lust-inducing properties, not cooked ones. So raw is what I tried.
Now I have to admit, dear Eaters, I cheated a little. I went to Hank’s Oyster Bar in D.C. I guess I could have shucked them myself and spent some time explaining how that worked, but frankly, I was worried. I mean, it is raw seafood. The last thing I want to do is poison my Valentine. So, instead, I took her to some experts where I felt certain we could test the mollusks safely and, as it turns out, enjoy some extremely well-prepared libations.
A bartender at Hank’s, John, took excellent care of us that night. He started by explaining a bit about the oyster’s aphrodisiac nature. They are high in zinc, a vitamin that controls progesterone levels (closely related to testosterone), which have a positive effect on the libido. This extra dose of zinc was a needed boost back when diets weren’t as healthy and vitamin-focused as they are today.
Also, oysters have tyrosine, an important amino acid. These acids heighten the amount of dopamine in the brain which, it turns out, is vital to stimulate sexual desire. Finally, I won’t even discuss its associated appearance and how it adds to the mix.
But enough with the science lesson! Hank’s was serving up raw oysters on the half shell: two native to Virginia, called Hayden’s Reef and Tom’s Cove, and a third, from Washington State, called Pebble Beach.
Again, John brought his encyclopedic knowledge to the table, explaining that the Pebble Beach oysters were actually imported from Japan. Apparently, our West Coast versions are slow growers and were eaten to virtual extinction. The Japanese imports are hardier and grow faster.
He also passed on another tidbit about the oyster shells: Hank’s recycles them! They’re turned over to be used to build artificial reefs for oysters to spawn.
Our informative oyster tour concluded, it was on to the tasting. We asked John the best method for eating the slippery beasts. Were we supposed to just swallow them whole or chew? I’d always heard to gulp them down whole, but our expert suggested a “courtesy chew” to get the flavor of the oyster. He also mentioned that they’re best with some sort of acid: lemon, Tabasco or cocktail sauce.
With some excellent cocktails at the ready, we were prepared for oyster number one: the Hayden’s Reef. This being my first oyster ever, I was pretty freaked out — but undeterred. I doused it with lemon, brought the shell to my lips and SLURP! I even braved the courtesy chew (chews, really). And it was good. I can’t describe it as excellent, because it mostly tasted like lemon. And it was certainly not as briny as I expected; our oyster guide noted that these were “medium large, light brine, and with a clean mineral finish.”
Next up was the other local, Tom’s Cove. This time, I went far lighter on the lemon. Shell to lips and down the hatch, after the now-obligatory courtesy chew. Again, it was light in taste. Described as “medium briny with an ocean finish,” I didn’t get an overpowering ocean taste. It was a little grittier than the first, but overall positive.
The final oyster, the (Japanese) Washington State Pebble Beach, was similarly dispatched from its shell. This last one was the most briny and was very gritty. I’d wished I tried the minuet sauce (made from red wine vinegar, cracked pepper and shallots) with this one. It was okay, though not amazing. The grit kept me from enjoying this oyster as much.
With the three oysters gone, our dining guide assured us that we had just tried a great sampling. As we departed, John mentioned a delicious cooked option: A Hank’s dish of boiled oysters, then panko-breaded and served in BBQ sauce.
Well, dear Eater, while there is some real science in the notion that oysters are aphrodisiacs, I’m not 100 percent convinced. Or, maybe I already have plenty of zinc in my diet. But the dining experience was fun. Despite my trepidations, I enjoyed the food and was able to check raw oysters off my list of things I’ve always wanted to try.
And as for an aphrodisiac, I think presenting a ring with a pearl from one of those oysters might do a better job of setting the mood than eating them.