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The first time I had fried oysters was at Smile’s Seafood Café, in my hometown of Prince Rupert. Until then, I had eaten smoked oysters out of a can, but never had a fresh oyster, clam or mussel either. Clams came from a can and went into clam chowder. Mussels were scraped from the bottom of your boat. It seems strange considering that I came from a city built on fishing, but no one ate bi-valves. We gorged ourselves on shrimp and dungness crab. Salmon was so plentiful as to be undesirable. Until I left Prince Rupert I had never purchased salmon, or trout for that matter. Fish was something you caught yourself, gave to your friends or was given to you by your friends. Canned salmon from the supermarket was what the local economy relied upon, but my fondest memories of canned salmon were looking at it through a glass mason jar and the lightly smoked flavour that came out of that jar. Suffice it to say that despite learning how to clean a fish before I finished primary school, much in the world of seafood was completely unknown to me.
And that takes me back to Smile’s. Every spring I looked forward to my annual allotment of halibut cheeks and fried abalone (back when you could still harvest wild Pacific abalone) but for the rest of the year I invariably ordered an “oyster burger,” Smile’s version of the fried oyster po’boy. In retrospect, the sandwich was quite unremarkable. The batter was thicker and heavier than anything I would make now. The tartar sauce came from a jar and the bun was squishy white bread. The tiny sprinkling of shredded ice burg lettuce was the only vegetable on the plate unless you count the lemon wedge or the French fries. That said, this is the sandwich that started my love affair with oysters.
Since leaving Prince Rupert I have explored the seafood counter much more thoroughly. I have learned that scallops do not emerge from their shell already wrapped in bacon. I have learned that my favourite way to eat clams is steamed with white wine and tossed with linguini. I have learned that I like mussels better than clams. I have learned that salmon need not be baked and in fact need not be cooked at all. I have reveled in the glory of lobster and concluded that I still like dunganess crab best. So with all that learning, what I have learned about oysters?
Smile’s oyster burger introduced me to fresh, plump oysters, but I really learned about them during a brief stint on Vancouver Island. The year that my son was born I had the good fortune/misfortune to live on near a place called Fanny Bay. I hated the seclusion… I hated the rush to catch the ferry every time I wanted to go somewhere… I hated that ducking out to grab milk was an hour-long adventure. A few years after I moved away, the house was turned into a Bed and Breakfast, the perfect place for people looking for scenery and seclusion.
Fanny Bay did have some redeeming qualities for me too. The house was on the beach, a half-mile from the pub and from the ferry to Denman Island. I swam in the ocean almost every day from Easter through to the end of summer. And best of all, in the cooler months, I could walk out to the beach and pick more oysters than I could eat every single day. While I lived there I learned how to bake oysters, fry them, make oyster stuffing and oyster stew. You would think that I would have become bored eating oysters a couple times a week, but I didn’t. I ate oysters every way I could think of and I loved them.
So this brings my story full circle. As much as I love oysters on the half-shell, my favourite way to eat them is still fried. I like a crispy corn-flour crust seasoned with just a little, salt, pepper and maybe some smoked paprika. A big dollop of tartar sauce is still a sure bet, though I usually make my own now. In a bun with heaped with some nice tangy cabbage slaw is awesome, but I’m just as happy with just the oysters and a squeeze of lemon.
I haven’t been back home for seventeen years but I know that Smile’s is still going strong. I hear mixed reviews these days, mostly complaints that everything is fried, but I hear that the fish and chips are still good and that the halibut cheeks are still the ‘star’ of the spring season. I don’t think the proprietors had any lofty culinary ideals back then. They were just serving good food to a willing audience. They probably thought it a little odd that a young kid ordered oysters instead of fish and chips. I am sure they don’t know how much they influenced my immature pallet. One thing I can say for certain is that to a kid that only saw oysters from a can, they made “weird” food more familiar. Not bad for a little café on the dock that has been cooking fish for the fishermen for longer than I’ve been alive.
By the way, I still have a few tins of smoked oysters in the pantry at all times. I like them best on a slab of French bread with a little cheese.