Clams, Mussels, and Oysters
To observe clams, mussels, and oysters is to immediately see why they have long been dubbed “the aphrodisiacs of the sea.” And many men claim to be sexually aroused just by looking at them, let alone for “eating them out” of their shells!
Clams and oysters, but more oftentimes oysters, are served raw in the half-shell—on a bed of cracked ice. They are traditionally accompanied by wedges or halves of fresh lemons (sometimes covered in cheesecloth stockings which allow the juice of the squeezed lemons to be released onto the shellfish while retaining the seeds of the fruit) and a tomato-based cocktail sauce to which horseradish may be added. Sometimes oyster crackers are also served as a complement, and some gentlemen are in the acceptable habit of crumpling the crackers with the fingers and adding the crumbs to the cocktail sauce.
Bracing the shell with the left hand, the oyster fork is used in the right hand to convey the entire oyster or clam to the mouth. Never are they cut with a knife. If a gentleman wishes to flavor his shellfish with the cocktail sauce, he may use the oyster fork to dab the desired amount of sauce onto the shellfish whilst it is in its shell, or he may dip the fork-speared shellfish into the sauce. The custom of picking up the shell and pouring the shellfish into the mouth is acceptable under less formal circumstances, where oyster forks are oftentimes not provided. And some connoisseurs insist that oysters taste best eaten in such a manner. But at a formal event, whatever can be eaten with an implement should be eaten with an implement. Such are the laws of Western society.
Mussels, and sometimes clams, are also steamed, usually in a white wine- or beer-based sauce. When steamed, mussels are presented in their full, two-halved shells, which tend to open naturally in the steaming process as their adductor muscles yield when exposed to heat. The mussel should be removed from its shell with a fork and eaten in one bite.
About 12 percent of all mussels, however, will not open during the normal steaming or cooking process. But contrary to popular myth, they should not necessarily be discarded as bad, for most often they are good and would have opened with additional cooking, though at the risk of becoming tough. (Actually, it is the mussels that open prematurely in the cooking process, those that emit a foul odor before cooking, or those that refuse to open even when “overcooked” that should be automatically avoided. And such mussels are usually detected and discarded by professional chefs). Unopened mussels prepared by a reputable chef, then, may be pried open with the fork and eaten. But ultimately, the true arbiter of a good mussel versus a bad one is the taste buds of the diner. So if the mussel does not taste good, whether presented open or closed, it should not be eaten: open-and-shut case! And if a bad oyster, clam, or mussel is inadvertently swallowed before its unsuitable condition could be properly detected, it should be immediately “killed off” by a strong shot of some potent alcohol—rum, vodka, or gin, for example. Thereafter, a gentleman should hope for the best….
Mussels will be served with an extra plate or bowl into which the empty shells should be placed. Rather than randomly placing them into the bowl or onto the plate (which looks untidy), the shells should be fit into each other, hand-in-glove-like, creating neat stacks. Any sauce remaining in the dish in which the mussels were served may be eaten, soup-like, with a spoon. Alternatively, sturdy bread such as French bread, speared onto the tines of a fork, may be used to absorb the liquid then eaten.