Consider the oyster, wrote M. F. K. Fisher years ago, and then did, from its infant spat self to its delicious demise. Just about everything anyone ever wanted to know about the oyster was in that early book (republished in the Vintage paperback, "The Art of Eating," except. . .
Except how to open 2 dozen oysters without bleeding to death. This is what all the experts say to do: Hold the well-scrubbed oyster in your left hand, pointing down; insert an oyster knife into the place where the shells join, slide the knife around, severing the hinge muscle, pull the shells apart and pop the oyster into your mouth.
Very simple. And as you watch the oyster-opening experts ply their trade at oyster bars, you think easy as pie -- or as oyster stew -- and buy 4 dozen unopened Chincoteagues, planning an orgy of oysters.
Then you discover that oysters are a mass of ridges, of lumps and bumps and encrustations of small sea creatures who have set up housekeeping on the oyster's shell. And where in heaven's name is the opening? Maybe the first five slide apart the way they should, but then comes a sixth, a tight-lipped bivalve hanging onto its contents like fury. Frustration. Nicked fingers and nicked palms (which, is why, by the way, an oyster knife is so essential; it can do enough damage when it slips, but a sharp-pointed knife would land you in the emergency room).
At this point you may decide that flavor isn't everything, and place the recalcitrant ones in a 400-degree oven for a few minutes, drop them into ice water and have another crack at them. Or, dreadful for the oyster but wonderful for the soul, was a hammer. If you're lucky, the hammer will break off a small corner of the shell, revealing the opening, which you then slide your knife into. If you're not, it will shatter the shell, losing the liquid and leaving you to pick bits of shard off the oyster.
Oysters are sold shucked, of course; in some stores they are probably even fresh. But those plump, out-of-the-shell oysters are worth every bit of bother, whether served raw, broiled, or as is traditional in the holiday season: in a rich and creamy oyster stew.
To make an oyster stew that will serve two, shuck 2 dozen oysters, reserving the liquid -- about two cups.
Bring one cup to a boil, skimming off the froth. Then add one cup of heavy cream, two tablespoons of butter, pepper and a dash of paprika.
Meanwhile, bring the other cup of oyster liquid to a boil and poach the oysters in it until the edges crinkle -- about five minutes.
Strain, add them to the creamy broth and, if you like, add a little more oyster liquid to taste.