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Love on the half shell 

A Valentine's Day guide to the Triangle's most popular aphrodisiac

See also: Chocolate: A kiss isn't enough anymore

click to enlarge Actress Gigi DeLizza, a member of the Little Green Pig Theatrical Concern, at Squid's in Chapel Hill. - PHOTO BY DEREK ANDERSON
  • Photo by Derek Anderson
  • Actress Gigi DeLizza, a member of the Little Green Pig Theatrical Concern, at Squid's in Chapel Hill.

A Recipe for Love, or How to Raise the Eyebrows of Your Whole Foods Cashier:

1. Go to the nearest library

2. Check out the Cambridge World History of Food.

3. Make a cheat sheet.

4. Drive to the grocery.

5. Fill your cart with the following: anise, arugula, basil, carrots, chocolate, fennel, orchids, oysters, pistachios, sage and turnips.

6. Return home. Run a bath, set out candles, open the wine.

7. Count down to romance.

While a savory meal of fennel, turnip and pistachio may not have been the first Valentine's menu to pop into your mind, it's one with centuries of history behind it. For these are just three of the foods considered throughout the ages to be aphrodisiacs. The Greeks sucked on aniseed long before Juvenal wrote in the second century that women became unusually amorous after drinking wine and eating "giant oysters." The idea that food can influence libido is one that seems to have unusual ... staying power.

Although these days fennel has been making the occasional lascivious appearance on local menus, it doesn't have the rowdy, public sex appeal of the low-class oyster. Let us, then, focus on the oyster this Valentine's season. How did a limp, gray, slug-like tongue win the heart of Western civilization?

Shucking is a career for many, not just a stepping stone. Unlike a lot of waitstaff who can't stomach the food they serve, it seems that oyster shuckers, a male-dominated lot, truly love oysters.

Some pledge allegiance to the big meaty Gulf oyster, the most common, while others counsel you to shell out twice as much for the Connecticut Blue Points or Rhode Island Beavertails. You'll rarely find West Coast oysters (Pacific, Olympia or the tiny, briny Kumamoto) in this area unless they're flown in for a special, and then it's often as a garnish at somewhere like Second Empire or Fearrington House. But Squid's in Chapel Hill has been serving a Chesapeake Bay oyster, and North Carolina oysters have been making appearances at Nelsons in Raleigh and Fishmonger's in Durham. There's the tasty Stump Sound, and a Pamlico Sound oyster may be available soon.

"The problem with North Carolina coastal oysters," says Mitch Payton, general manager at Fishmonger's, "is they're so in demand at the coast that they very rarely make it this far. But we used to, every fall, get North Carolina oysters in addition to the Gulf Coast. Two years ago they found an oyster bed in the Pamlico Sound that they didn't know was there, so they roped it off and expanded it, and now it's a permanent, sustainable oyster bed."

Wherever the oyster's birthplace, every shucker I've met swears by some kind of oyster magic, and they're happy to testify to it.

Abraham Coovadia sells oysters at the N.C. Seafood Market in Raleigh, which carries seafood exclusively from North Carolina with the single exception of Gulf oysters. Does he think oysters are aphrodisiacs? "Definitely," Coovadia says, a twinkle in his eye. "Oysters are one of our best sellers." Are their customers eating them for taste alone or for their mystique? "I think it's both; some people come in as couples, some just come in by themselves and get a lot of fried oysters, a huge plate." (But is the love potion rendered powerless by a full tummy?)

Louis Beck is a shucker at Nelsons in Raleigh's Cameron Village. He sees a lot of traffic at the raw bar, people seeking aphrodisiacs. They're "eating them specifically for that, especially the older guys." He remembers, "One night I had about five guys and they had six pecks of oysters [around 200]. Each one of their women was over at one of the guys' house and they were waiting for them to come back home. They was talking about, 'Man, I'm going home after these oysters....'"

42nd Street Oyster Bar in downtown Raleigh actually advertises their opinion. Their home page opens with the following motto: "eat seafood ... Live longer, eat oysters ... Love longer, eat clams ... Last longer." Shucker Daniel Craven has been on the job for three and a half years. Does he think oysters will make you "love longer"? "Yeah, but I'm always like that."

And then there's Jim Carter of Sunnyside Too Oyster Bar in Garner, a true believer. "I've been eating oysters ever since I can remember. I'm from Williamston, Down East where the original [Sunnyside Oyster Bar] is. In my opinion, the oyster is the only true aphrodisiac there is. Every time I put them in my mouth."

But he also concedes that a good cold beer helps.

The eponymous Aphrodite was said to spring to life from the sea on something resembling an oyster shell, according to her best-known PR rep Sandro Botticelli.

Has Botticelli's image (c. 1485), one of the most recognizable in Western art, somehow wormed its way into our collective unconscious? Has it suggested a subtle transitive property for attraction, i.e. ...

If ... Insatiable Goddess of Love = Aphrodite,

and ... Aphrodite = Fleshy creature on the half shell,

then ... Insatiable Love = Half Shell?

In other words, could this all be good advertising?

click to enlarge A dozen on the half shell at Fishmonger's in Durham, looking down from the oyster bar. They're $5 a dozen on Friday afternoons. - PHOTO BY DEREK ANDERSON
  • Photo by Derek Anderson
  • A dozen on the half shell at Fishmonger's in Durham, looking down from the oyster bar. They're $5 a dozen on Friday afternoons.

Mitch Payton at Fishmonger's seems just the philosopher to address this question. "It's an interesting thing. I'm not sure if I've ever believed in that aphrodisiac thing. But if you think about it, or you know about it, and then you sit down with a date over a plate of raw oysters—uh, yeah, it works." It's the elephant in the corner: If both you and your date know that oysters are rumored to be inspiring, suddenly an aura of sexuality appears, one that might not be there if you ordered lasagna.

Placebo effect, then? Probably. But imagine a young man a few centuries ago living at the coast. It's winter, he's malnourished, grain is hard to come by and fresh meat is non-existent. But then, he finds an oyster—pure protein. One quick metabolic cycle, and he'll soon feel like he can leap over tall buildings, or at least upon the nearest fair maiden. And thus a legend is propagated.

A little historical trivia to break the ice at Valentine's dinner: Just last year, Ballantine published The Big Oyster by Mark Kurlansky, a clever history that traces oysters from Henry Hudson onward. The facts are impressive. New York, 1747: "The poorest people in Manhattan lived all year on 'nothing but oysters and bread.'" London, 1864: "It was calculated by the Times of London that 700 million oysters were being consumed annually." By 1898, "New York City had a population of about 2.5 million and consumed as many as a million oysters a day."

Things have changed, of course. Oysters are not our major source of protein, and these days most of us in their vicinity are more than sufficiently nourished. But we still seek out the little snotlets. Why?

The oyster lobby has done a good job—our minds register about three simultaneous associations when the word "oyster" is uttered: 1. Aphrodisiac, 2. Bearer of pearls, 3. Beach party!

But a rogue, fourth association is violent intestinal rejection. The goal, of course, is to highlight the first three while entirely repressing the fourth, which is one worth acknowledging. Danger is sexy, like playing with fire or driving a fast car. In the back of our minds, we know that oysters are a little bit dangerous; there's even a little federally mandated warning hanging on the wall, just to remind us.

It's possible the slight danger is worth it.

Dr. George Fisher at Barry University in Florida announced in March 2005 that he had found two compounds in oysters, clams and mussels (D-aspartic acid and N-methyl-D-aspartate) that were effective in releasing the sexual hormones testosterone and estrogen. Sounds promising, but keep this in mind: Through exhaustive medical literature searches, this was the only finding that appeared at all valid.

Two related articles on aphrodisiacs, one in the Journal of Clinical Infectious Disease, "Drinking Bat Blood May Be Hazardous to Your Health," and the other in the Journal of Neuroendocrinology, "Hormone Treatment Facilitates Penile Erection in Castrated Rats after Sleep Deprivation and Cocaine," proved only that it's possible to go too far in the pursuit of aphrodisiacs.

For the biggest, freshest oysters, stay well on the beaten path. Good oysters are plentiful when there's high turnover. At Fishmonger's, 42nd Street Oyster Bar and Nelsons, the raw oysters were pure pleasure. Between these three wildly different restaurants, you can easily find a Valentine's night atmosphere to suit your mood.

Fishmonger's is a fantastic dive. Upstairs it's an oyster bar, emphasis on "bar," with dim lighting, picnic-style seating, paper tablecloths and happy drunks. Six-percent beer, too. If you ask nicely, young Nicole at the bar will shuck oysters for you using a clever medieval-like press. And if you are very lucky, you may strike up a conversation with regulars like Bob McAnnally and his wife, Debbie, who'd just found a pearl and were so jaded by the bag of pearls they've collected over the years that they gave this one to me.

Here you've stepped into Jimmy Buffet's kitchen; settle in and switch your internal clock to island time. Oysters on the half shell are $10.95 a dozen, but only $5/dozen on Friday afternoons, so if you plan to eat a few, aim for then. Their market is open all week, though—for those who prefer an intimate Valentine's dinner at home, pick up a peck at your convenience. And if you want to try Fishmonger's, you may need to act quickly, because word on the street is that it's for sale.

42nd Street Oyster Bar is dressier, a traditional black-and-white-tile joint with live music Thursday through Saturday. The clientele tends to the after-work crowd and feels very old-time "capital city." If I knew what my state senator looked like, I'd look for him here. But the raw bar is very friendly, with purposeful shuckers bustling about the open kitchen. A party of four can get a table that attaches to the bar, so no one has to be geek-on-the-end.

The raw Gulf oysters at 42nd Street ($7.95/ half-dozen) are the best I've had outside New Orleans. And you can tell turnover is exceedingly high; more than once I've been seated next to a table of five guys downing oysters faster than the server can shuck. It feels a bit like a raw-bar fraternity. If Fishmonger's says "Relax, mon," 42nd Street says "Eat, eat, eat!" But you can have a less frenetic dinner sitting at one of the booths, if you'd prefer a quiet Valentine's meal.

Nelsons is a new, self-consciously upscale eatery in Raleigh's Cameron Village. You've been transported to a spa in Vegas—$20-a-square-foot mosaic tiles on the wall, waterfalls coursing down metal sheeting, sumptuous upholstery and heavy iron barstools. The raw bar is wide and looks expensive, with wave-like curves. The minute you sit, one or two old-school shuckers will come right up, set out a little bar-towel placemat and inquire after your oyster preferences. It is clear they will cater to your every whim. Mignonette sauce? Of course. Five different kinds of oysters? Certainly. Champagne? Three by the glass.

It's a pampered existence, and you sense a sort of protocol being played out, like at an English high tea. As good as their raw oysters are ($5.95/ half-dozen for Gulf oysters; $12/ half-dozen for specialty oysters—try the Beavertails), the Nelsons Rockefeller is spectacular. Their twist on the old spinach-and-breadcrumb standby is to add a layer of prosciutto and drizzles of Pernod and heavy cream to Stump Sound oysters before they go in the broiler. It really is worth the calories—hey, you're doing it for love.

Chef Felton Walden shows off the Oysters Rockefeller at Nelsons in Raleigh's Cameron Village. - PHOTO BY DEREK ANDERSON
  • Photo by Derek Anderson
  • Chef Felton Walden shows off the Oysters Rockefeller at Nelsons in Raleigh's Cameron Village.

As with any subculture, raw-bar fiends are a passionate bunch.

Some try to earn respect by sheer numbers ingested. In his recent book Heat, Bill Buford shadows British superstar chef Marco Pierre White for a few weeks. One afternoon, novelist Jim Harrison, a food aficionado in his own right, appears for lunch, and when raw oysters are ceremoniously brought to the table, he demurs. White is a bit surprised; you can almost hear him mutter "Pansy!" in his aristocratic growl. But then Harrison explains; he'd "just returned from Normandy where he'd tested a view of the 19th-century food writer Brillat-Savarin that grand meals had once begun by guests' eating a gross of oysters each (a hundred and forty-four oysters).... He could not recommend the practice." (Harrison's own rule of thumb, from his book The Raw and the Cooked, is thus: "The idea is to eat well and not die from it—for the simple reason that that would be the end of your eating.")

Most oyster stories revolve around danger, risk and public displays of eating. I've often thought the producers of that iconic 1980s movie Wall Street would have been wise to add one more scene: Gordon Gekko at the bar, downing 'em raw. Because it's such a display of power, eating something that's not quite dead. With a lobster in a tank, at least it's removed to the kitchen for the dirty work, the roaring boil. But when you eat your oyster, it's shucked bar-side in one quick, violent movement and handed right to you.

"I think [with] raw fish in general," muses Mitch Payton at Fishmonger's, "from a psychological perspective, there's a certain purity to what you're eating because somebody just popped this open—it's still alive." And that's exciting. "It's got something to do with this primeval experience. When's the last time you had a two-minute-dead steak?"

For those who wish to explore that oyster magic without biting off more than they can chew, a smattering of restaurants in the Triangle offer oysters fried, baked, in a salad or as a garnish. (All raw bars also offer steamed, but to be perfectly honest, I've never seen the point of steamed oysters. They're like deep-kissing someone who smoked a cigar 12 hours ago.)

My personal favorite in the garnish category is the Carpetbagger at Glenwood Grill in Raleigh: filet mignon with hollandaise and three perfect parmesan-fried oysters perched on top. Have your steak and a little magic, too.

Fine, fried oyster sandwiches can be had at Sunnyside Too and at the N.C. Seafood Restaurant. Even if you don't live nearby, both make for wacky field trips. The N.C. Seafood Restaurant is a blue-jeans, order-at-the-front sort of place, perfect for a sandwich and fries after browsing the state Farmers' Market or Meat & Cheese Center next door. Sunnyside Too is located on Garner's Main Street in a gorgeous old building by the tracks and looks as if it may have once housed the town bank. You'll find the sprawling oyster bar downstairs ($9/ dozen raw), below a sports bar. Friday and Saturday are the big nights, but my companion loved the all-you-can-eat crab legs on Tuesday, and the calabash was positively beachy.

The Independent's editor, Richard Hart, loves the fried-oyster taco from Flying Burrito in Chapel Hill—reminds him of his childhood po-boys in New Orleans. If you, too, miss New Orleans, Tony's Bourbon Street Oyster Bar in the back of Cary's MacGregor Village is happy to supply that kitschy Mardi Gras feel any night of the week. While its mild mood is closer to a post-Katrina Bourbon Street, the traditional stainless steel bar is a friendly place with casual drinkers and serious eaters ($10.95/ dozen raw). Get the baked oyster sampler for a date-night conversation starter: two Rockefeller (heavy on the spinach), two casino (peppers, onions, celery), and two Cajun (bacon and cayenne—who needs the oysters?).

Though you can find admirable fried-oyster salads all over, from the Peak City Grill in Apex to JK's in North Hills (where raw oysters are $4.50/ half-dozen or $7/ dozen on Sunday nights), first place in the salad category goes to Squid's in Chapel Hill (and while you're there, if your date wants to test out a few raw, they're extremely fresh and only 50 cents from 4-6:30 p.m.; $11.45/ dozen other times). Squid's supersized Caesar is crowned with a kingly number of fried oysters. They're so plump that when you crunch down, seawater seems to burst the breakers of crisp batter; this is the most "oystery" fried oyster I've found, in fine balance with the lemony, salty Caesar dressing.

Finally, the fantastic Spicy Devils at Michael Dean's in North Raleigh win for best appetizer. These fiery fried bacon-wrapped oysters with horseradish almost taste like buffalo wings—so you can summon the spirit of the raw-bar experience without any of that "raw" part.

Whether oysters have scientific merit as aphrodisiacs will be debated by horny marine biology students for years to come. But does it exist in the real world?

Let's give a woman the last word. Sarah Jacobson, who works the raw bar at Squid's, thinks "most people are not serious about it. It's usually couples that are joking about it—the woman will, like, punch the guy in the arm and laugh." Which is kind of the point—to laugh about it.

But just in case: Quick, pop another oyster in your mouth and make googly eyes at your date.

Start shuckin'

A selection of Triangle oyster bars and purveyers

Fishmonger's Restaurant & Oyster Bar
806 W. Main St., Durham • 682-0128

Flying Burrito
746 Airport Road, Chapel Hill • 967-7744

click to enlarge PHOTO BY DEREK ANDERSON

42nd Street Oyster Bar & Seafood Grill
508 W. Jones St., Raleigh • 831-2811

Glenwood Grill
2603-151 Glenwood Ave., Raleigh • 782-3102

Hudson's Oyster Bar and Grille
6204 Glenwood Ave., Raleigh • 420-0340

4381 Lassiter at North Hills Ave., Raleigh • 781-3919

Michael Dean's
6004 Falls of Neuse Road
North Ridge Shopping Center, Raleigh • 790-9992

N.C. Seafood Restaurant and Market
1201 Agriculture St., State Farmers' Market, Raleigh • 833-4661

521 Daniels St., Raleigh • 832-9815

Peak City Grill
126 N. Salem St., Apex • 303-8001

Shucker's Oyster Bar
10625 Capital Blvd., Wake Forest • 556-7704

Squid's Restaurant, Market & Oyster Bar
1201 N. Fordham Blvd., Chapel Hill • 942-8757

Sunny Side Too Oyster Bar
111 W. Main St., Garner • 662-7994

Tony's Bourbon Street Oyster Bar
MacGregor Village Shopping Center107 Edinburgh Drive South, Cary • 462-6226

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