Christmas 2020 was a weird one, my first without my family, my first not in Chicago. I spent it in an Airbnb in the Sierra Nevadas in a town with major Twin Peaks vibes and about a 10% mask-wearing rate among the locals. It makes sense that it was on this holiday, of all the holidays, that I met my newfangled quarantine love: a rectangular tin of Crown Prince smoked oysters. Not as part of the Christmas feast itself (which was mostly melted gruyère in various formats), but in my stocking. The cured invertebrates were a gift from my girlfriend, a vegetarian who respects my gross food preferences (particularly if said preferences are less anthropomorphize-able than, say, a cow or a pig). The gift felt a little like a dare, and a little like a declaration of the moment: yep, I was at this point in the pandemic, the point where I’d be getting into canned oysters.
“Canned” and “oysters” are two words that, to some stomachs, trigger an immediate evacuation response. I get that. I first ate oysters (raw, on the half-shell) on a family trip to Ireland in 1998. My mom tells the story like this: my dad, an oyster fiend, ordered a dozen raw ones on the half-shell. Mom briefly excused herself to the ladies, and as her husband and three children left her eyesight, she wondered, “He wouldn’t. Would he?” But he did. Mom returned to the table to find her youngest (me) a shade of pale chartreuse, having just eaten her first raw oyster. One swallow of ocean, and I was seasick.
I swore the bivalves off for a decade or so, my eight-year-old palate so thoroughly scarred by what was essentially a shell full of salty boogers. But around age 23, $1 oyster happy hours became a sacred post-work treat. They embodied a new kind of twenty-something freedom: I worked a 9-5 in New York, meaning I had money (to spend on oysters) and time (to spend eating oysters). They were inexpensive (until 7 p.m.), yet definitively adult. I felt a satisfaction of knowing I’d grown into the shellfish. No longer was I turning green at the table. Instead, I was grown, eating raw foods and saying mignonette and ordering in increments of half-dozens.
And then, in 2020, well, we all know what happened. Oyster happy hours fall very, very, very low on the ranking of pandemic casualties, obviously. But it’s been a year—both literally and with dramatic emphasis on that last word—and you might be running low on ways to stay fancy at home. Perhaps fresh oysters are available to you for home-shucking, or perhaps you’re willing to shell out (har-har) for an Island Creek shipment. But if not, to recreate the casual decadence of oyster happy hour, I implore you to buy a can of oil-packed smoked oysters. Your feeling-like-a-god-damn-grown-up-ness depends on it.
Not because smoked oysters and raw oysters taste anything alike. I’m not clear on how they’re the same animal, frankly, but apparently it’s true. Taste-wise, all raw and smoked oysters have in common is the word “oyster” in their name. Smoked, the bivalve isn’t briny or slimy, but more like a hunk of fish dip packed into a long, thin ovoid. They aren’t slurped, but bitten into, soft and meaty—salty, smoky, a little fishy, easy to spread. Smoked oysters aren’t eaten on the half-shell, or with mignonette or cocktail sauce, nor are they young-professionals-happy-hour bait. They’re an entirely different food and a much more versatile one.
Let’s back up and talk oyster history, shall we? The bivalves shared planet Earth with the dinosaurs, and humans have been eating them since pre-recorded history. Eaten locally in Massachusetts and Chesapeake Bay during colonial times, oysters became a big thing in 19th-century America thanks to the invention of canning. Oysters could now be packed and shipped to major, non-coastal cities like Chicago, Detroit, and St. Louis, where they became immensely popular. While most American oysters at the time came from the Atlantic, smoked oysters seem to have come from the West Coast. Chinese immigrants and traders brought dried, smoked oysters from China to San Francisco by the barrel, and they eventually even made it to the Midwest. In 1881, the Detroit Free Press referred to smoked oysters as a Chinese dish, noting their new arrival in what would eventually be Motor City.
Oysters were cheap—about as much as beef per pound, around the turn of the century—making them an easy way to bulk up dishes. Their popularity fell in the first quarter of the 20th century, for a few reasons: 1) The Pure Food And Drug Act of 1906 and its new “hygiene requirements” (boo); 2) Bad press linking oysters to a 1924 typhoid breakout in Chicago; and 3) Prohibition, because who wants to eat oysters without a drink in hand?
But the reasons canned oysters were so popular in the 19th century are the same reasons they’re the perfect pandemic food. They hit that perfect quarantine strike zone: they’ll last in the cabinet forever, just waiting to save you on that one desperate evening when you haven’t grocery shopped in weeks; they’re a new, weird, exciting taste, but still available at pretty much any grocery store; and they feel decadent, even at just $3 per can. Eating canned oysters at home is a way to feel like life is a little different, even if it’s been the same all year. Even after twelve full months of weird at-home cooking experiments, canned oysters are just funky enough to give you a culinary jump-start.
How does one eat canned oysters? Honestly, however you want. Think of them like any other tinned fish, like sardines or clams. Canned oysters go great as a dip (chopped up with chives and cream cheese), or mixed into pasta (with lemon and butter and parsley). Put them on a pizza, or bake them into a savory pie, or fold them into an omelette. Frankly, I’m partial to smoked oysters straight from the tin, on a cracker, with a dash of hot sauce and a pilsner. But with canned oysters, the world is your oyster.
When it comes to most discoveries of the past calendar year, I’ll be—what’s the phrase? Oh, yes—leaving them the fuck behind me. Zoom happy hours, a constant barrage of incomprehensibly depressing news, to-go soup dumplings—oh my God, I’ve become so numb to the way life is that I just had to Google “worst things about pandemic.” But smoked oysters are one (maybe the only?) quarantine discovery that I’ll carry into the vaccinated future. We’re seeing the light at the end of the tunnel. So just imagine me walking in slow motion, the world exploding behind me as I exit the pandemic, carrying two armfuls of tinned smoked oysters packed in olive oil.