Enjoying a raw oyster is an acquired taste. Unless you grew up in a seacoast town where the whole family regularly feasted on oysters, the thought of dining on something that can wiggle while you eat it can be a roadblock.
To venture forth, you must also balance the negative and positive rumors. For a gourmand, oysters on the half shell rank alongside caviar as the most sophisticated foodstuff available. The legendary promise of augmented sexual desire as a byproduct of oyster consumption is often a sufficient incentive. The presence of zinc in very high quantities in edible oysters has been well-documented and helps to give real substance to the legend.
For the novice, perhaps the best place to begin is in a "famous" raw bar restaurant environment. Once you have a feel for the tastes and etiquette, find a restaurant that also has a seafood market attached. After dinner take home a dozen of the oysters that you like.
New England towns often have seafood markets that carry fresh oysters. Once you have mastered the keys for identifying oysters and the ability to ask the right questions, you may want to find a place where you can shop regularly and rely upon the store owner's oyster preferences.
Why begin at a restaurant?
Every oyster has two protective shells linked by a ligament. One shell is spoon-shaped; the other is flatter, more like a lid. The fleshy body of the oyster itself controls the opening and closing of the two shells with a single adductor muscle that is attached to each shell. Only the spoon-shaped shell will hold both the oyster flesh and the tasty liquid (called liquor) in which it floats. The person who opens the oyster, severs the muscle and ligament with a knife, removes the flatter shell, preserves as much liquid as possible, and places the "shucked" oyster in its remaining half-shell on a plate for you.
The oyster stands alone as a creature that carries a house that can be converted to a small perfect plate. Between the ocean and your fingers, are a series of intervening people. The restaurant owner has your business in mind. The chef has your palate to please. The waiter is charged with presenting the oyster to you. If you are at a raw bar, the waiter may also be the person who opens the oyster in front of you. The key to the long term enjoyment of raw oysters is to master the presentation. Watch carefully.
Are you ready?
The raw oyster is essentially a spoonfull of taste. It remains in your mouth only a few seconds. The first ingredient of the taste is the oyster itself. The second is the liquid in which it floats. Lift the shell to your lips, tilt your head back and drink both like you would a thick chocolate malt. Let in a little air and chew slowly like you would for any hors d'oeuvre, and swallow.
Perhaps your choice of beverage for your first experience should be one with which you are already familiar: beer, wine, or simply cold water. Drink after each oyster, "clean" your palate with bread and begin again.
US restaurants usually serve raw oysters with lemon, cocktail sauce, and hot sauce. They may also serve more than one type of oyster. The oysters of each locale have their own flavor. To maximize the pleasure of your first experience, taste more than one type. Start "naked" and then add lemon, and/or sauce. Ask your waiter to recommend a wine or beer. With experience favorites will emerge. Like many other fine foods, oysters are an art form. Take your time to learn and to appreciate them.