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After the first one, it's easy

Eating oysters

First encountered oysters one humid night in a run-down oyster bar in New Orleans' French Quarter.

I was a very finicky eater at the time, and the thought of slurping down a live, raw, bi-valve with the texture of a slug from a dirty shell dredged from the mucky sea floor was at least disgusting.

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A "friend" ordered a dozen on the half shell to share and there was no way I could weasel out of eating one. But I tried.

Why didn't anyone say McDonald's?

After my endless whining, our waitress - ironically named Pearl - stormed over to our table. She stood hunched over me with her hands on her hips. And, by the look on her face, she was taking it very personally that I had been bad-mouthing "her" oysters.

"Darlin'," she commanded in a gruff voice, "just squirt some lemon juice on one of 'em and swallow it. Shut your eyes if you have to."

I grabbed one, took a deep breath, closed my eyes and threw it down. It was cold, slimy, with an intense sea flavor - and sublime! I was savoring the essence of the ocean itself. And, like a Louisiana catfish, I was hooked!

My friend told me that he liked to imagine himself nibbling on a mermaid's toes when he eats oysters. His analogy seemed appropriate, (even though, I later realized, mermaids don't have any).

Oysters can be eaten throughout the year but are best from September through April - the "R" months. During these cold months they are plump, more flavorful and meaty. In the warmer months they're apt to become too fatty and milky.

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For thousands of years, oysters have been an epicurean delight. The first known people to have shucked oysters for consumption were Australian Aborigines (shell deposits have been dated to around 6000 BC).

Early European settlers ate the oyster as well. Ancient Romans, while pillaging and plundering England, took time to gather oysters, packed their catch in cloth sacks, and sent them to home to Rome.

When serving oysters on the half shell - and many connoisseurs believe that any other way is heresy - they should be eaten as soon as possible after they are shucked. If allowed to sit too long the taste and texture will change. Also, never rinse them as it produces a washed-out taste. Lemon wedges, a twist of ground pepper, and a dot of Tabasco or Louisiana hot sauce are all the accompaniment they need. Warning: Do not drown oysters in cloying tomato cocktail sauce.

If oysters are to be cooked, as in a stew, or the recipe below, packaged, pre-shucked are acceptable. Pay careful attention to the "use before" date.

Oysters and Bacon en Brochette

4 strips of raw bacon, halved

1 egg

1/2 cup milk

Tabasco or other hot sauce

3/4 cup of flour

Freshly ground pepper

8 shucked oysters, drained of their liquor

Vegetable oil for frying

Fresh parsley, finely chopped

lemon wedges

Blanch bacon in boiling water for about 15 seconds; drain on paper towels.

Beat egg with milk and season to taste with a dash or two of Tabasco.

Put flour on a plate, add about 1/4 teaspoon of ground pepper, or to taste.

Dredge oysters in flour, then dip in egg mixture. Reserve flour. Wrap a piece of bacon around each oyster and thread on bamboo skewers, or individually on wooden toothpicks.

Pour oil into a heavy skillet to a depth of about 3 inches. When oil is very hot, roll brochettes in flour; coat thoroughly on all sides.

Fry oysters in batches, turning occasionally, until and golden, about 3 to 5 minutes. Drain on paper towels, season with salt and more pepper; sprinkle with parsley.

Serve with lemon wedges.

Serves 2 to 4 as an appetizer.

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