“He was a brave man who first ate an oyster”
— Jonathan Swift
The “food firsts” in my life have all been memorable. I remember the first time I ever ate lamb. Actually, I remember the first time I was ever told that I was eating lamb. I had actually been eating it for years, but the adults in my life had banded together to tell me it was “roast beef” because I had refused to eat lamb the first time it was served to me. Eventually, they broke the news to me and I was finally let in on the long-held family secret.
I can remember the first time I ever ate Benton’s bacon, the first time I ever ate parmesan-truffle fries and dozens of other “first” items all across the European continent. Though one of the most significant food firsts in my life was raw oysters.
I can easily remember the first raw oyster I ever ate. It was at Baricev’s restaurant on the Mississippi Gulf Coast and I was sitting at the oyster bar with my grandfather and my brother. My father died when I was young (I am told he, too, was a huge fan of raw oysters) and my grandfather was the primary male influence in my life.
My attitude toward eating raw oysters wasn’t a typical one for an 8-year-old kid. No one had to force me — and my terrified, tear-stained face — to try an oyster. There was no drama or wailing and gnashing of teeth in the restaurant. I had asked to sit at the oyster bar to try my first oyster. My older brother had already been eating them for a few years, and he was a huge fan. I looked up to him as much as I looked up to my grandfather (who was a world-class oyster eater), and so I was ready to get started on a long, full life of raw-oyster eating.
Baricev’s was owned by one of the Croatian/Yugoslavian fishing families who had migrated to the Mississippi Gulf Coast near the turn of the last century. All of those Slavic immigrants were fishermen on the Adriatic Coast and were a step ahead of other immigrants when they began dropping nets in the water over here.
Many of them opened restaurants, too. My grandfather’s favorite — and therefore my favorite — was Baricev’s.
There was a “grown up” feeling I had sitting up at the oyster bar with my grandfather and brother, while my mother and grandmother were back at the table in the dining room. There was a sense of independence. Even though my mother liked oysters, this felt like a “man thing.” Growing up without a father in the home, this might have been the first spark I ever felt of male bonding. It was great. The oysters were, too.
Fast forward 40 years, and I can remember the first time my 8-year-old son ate an oyster. As with me, there was no kicking and screaming. It was a tear-less event. He might have been more enthusiastic about eating his first oyster than I was. We were in our New Orleans-themed concept and I had busted him out of school during his lunch break to go on a longer lunch break with me (a practice I did with both of my children once a week). I ordered a dozen raw as an appetizer and he asked if he could try one. I loaded one on a cracker and put a little extra cocktail sauce on it. He ate it like a champ. He immediately ordered a half-dozen raw for himself. And after he finished that half-dozen, he ordered another half-dozen.
Our family spends a lot of time throughout the year in New Orleans. The boy and I eat oysters down there a lot. He is a fan of Cassemento’s and begs to eat there if we are there during the months they are open. But my go-to these days for raw oysters, and my favorite oyster bar in New Orleans, is tucked into the corner of the front bar at Pascal’s Manale restaurant on Napoleon.
When it comes to eating raw oysters at Pascal’s Manale, it’s classic New Orleans all of the way. One pays the bartender for how many oysters he wants and the bartender hands the customer a small, custom logo’d poker chip. The customer then takes the chip over to the oyster shucker. For those not familiar with stand-up oyster bars, there is a marble counter about mid-chest level, with an oyster shucker standing on the other side. At his waist are a sack of oysters that have been emptied into an ice bin and are completely iced. Manale’s are consistently the coldest oysters I have eaten in New Orleans.
Tucked away in a corner across from the oyster bar is the condiment station with all of the usual players— hot sauce, potent horseradish, lemons, ketchup, Worcestershire, crackers, cocktail forks and napkins. Everyone makes their own personal version of cocktail sauce. Mine is the same as it’s been since the first time I ate an oyster a half-century ago — ketchup, lemon juice and a whole lot of horseradish.
I also like to squeeze lemon on the oysters while they are sitting in the shell and add a little salt to them. Pascal’s Manale’s horseradish is potent, so no hot sauce is needed.
One stands at the oyster bar while the shucker opens the oysters and places them on top of the marble bar directly in front of the customer. It’s the classic New Orleans way. One knows how many oysters he’s eaten by how many empty shells are stacked up in front of his spot at the bar.
There are several activities we enjoy as a father-son team — football games, concerts, movies and breakfasts. Eating raw oysters together seems to have a little more meaning, probably because of those early days at Baricev’s with my grandfather.
2 cups white wine
1 quart shrimp stock
3/4 cup creole seasoning
1/2 cup worcestershire sauce
1/2 cup lemon juice
3 tbsp paprika
2 tbsp garlic, minced
2 tbsp liquid crab boil
3/4 cup creole mustard
4 bay leaves
1 tbsp hot sauce
1 pound medium-large shrimp, head-on, unpeeled
• Bring all ingredients except shrimp to a boil, immediately remove from heat and cool (can be made 2-3 days ahead of time). Make sure to stir the cold BBQ Shrimp stock vigorously before adding it to the skillet (and remove the bay leaves).
• To make BBQ Shrimp: Melt six ounces of butter in a skillet and add one pound, unpeeled shrimp. Sautee until shrimp begin to turn pink. Add 2 tablespoons Cracked black peppercorns. Add 2 cups BBQ Shrimp Stock and cook until shrimp are just done. Pour in a bowl and serve with plenty of toasted French bread for dipping.