They say oysters are a cruel meat, because we eat them alive; then they are an uncharitable meat for we leave nothing to the poor; and they are an ungodly meat for we never say grace. -- Jonathan Swift

From the everyday fare of the first settlers at Jamestown to an expensive appetizer in F today's most elegant restaurants, oysters have been one of the most popular and important foods in American history. Oysters were so abundant in the last century that they were cooked in every conceivable fashion: scalloped, steamed, fried, roasted and deviled, baked in crumbs and made into pa te's and sausages. They were used in soups and stews as well as chowders, in stuffings and to flavor sauces for fish and even for boiled mutton.

However, waters became polluted, supplies diminished, demand remained high, prices rose radically and oysters are now an expensive delicacy, not an everyday food.

For today's oyster lover, the ideal way to eat an oyster and get all the taste and texture that you are paying for is on the half shell. Originally, oysters on the half shell were served with only salt and pepper. Later the salt was replaced by lemon juice, and in some cases the pepper by hot pepper sauce. Insensitive oyster eaters at the turn of this century began the tradition of bathing their oysters in cocktail sauce, but today's more sophisticated palate favors the French dipping sauce, called Sauce Mignonette, made by mixing red wine vinegar, chopped shallots and freshly ground black pepper.

Although I don't always practice what I preach, I believe that home cooks should avoid shucking their own oysters whenever possible. Most fish stores will shuck the oysters for you, given a few hours notice, and with a little coaxing they will provide you with enough crushed ice on which to serve the oysters.

However, should you wish to shuck your own oysters, you'll need an oyster knife, preferably with a finger guard, an old kitchen towel to grip the oysters, and a lot of time and patience (unless you use the cheater's shucking method, which is explained later). Not that the technique is all that complicated; it isn't, but it does require considerable experience to pry open oyster after oyster with any ease.

First is the professional way to open oysters: Wash the oysters under running cold tap water and brush the shells to remove all the dirt. Keep the oysters as cold as possible, either in the refrigerator or on ice, so that the muscle holding the shells together is relaxed by the chill. Place the towel on a secure work surface and place an oyster, flat side up, on the towel. Place part of the towel over the shell so it can be gripped tightly without cutting into your hand, and hold it securely. With the tip of the oyster knife, pry into the front end of the oyster between the shells. With a little pressure on the knife, you should be able to slide it into the oyster. That's assuming you have the tip in exactly the right place, and that the oyster is being cooperative. Once the knife is in, turn the oyster and push the knife through the two shells to loosen them, then twist on the knife so that the shells pop apart. Voila! The oyster is open. Turn it over, pull the shells apart, discard the top shell, and loosen the oyster from the bottom shell, leaving it in place. Brush out any bits of shell that have gotten into the oyster. Repeat with the remaining oysters.

The cheater's way of shucking an oyster is heresy to a professional shucker, but I find it works exceedingly well. Six at a time, place the cleaned oysters in a large bowl of the hottest water that will come from the tap. Let the oyster remain in the hot water for 60 seconds, then remove one and open it on a towel, holding it flat side down this time, by inserting the tip of the oyster knife into the pivotal spot at the hinge where the two shells are held together. The hot water will have weakened the oyster and the knife will slip in quite easily, so easily, indeed, that you will be quite surprised at how little pressure is needed to open the oyster. Once in, run the knife around to loosen the shells, then separate the shells and loosen the oyster from the bottom shell. Repeat with the remaining oysters in the hot water before warming the next batch.

When serving oysters as a first course, plan six per person. Once the oysters have been opened, they can be draped loosely with plastic wrap and be stored in the refrigerator until serving time, certainly for as much as half a day, if need be. The best way to serve oysters is on a bed of crushed ice.

Spread about a cup of crushed ice onto a large plate and press the oysters into place. Serve with any of the following sauces or garnishes, or perhaps choose two different garnishes, garnishing half the oysters with one and half with the other:

* Serve with lemon wedges and hot pepper sauce.

* Serve with lemon wedges, white (not pink) horseradish, and a peppermill filled with black peppercorns.

* Serve with Sauce Mignonette made by combining 1 cup raspberry vinegar with 1/4-cup very finely chopped shallots and a teaspoon of freshly ground black pepper.

* Serve with lemon wedges and place a half teaspoon of fine sturgeon caviar atop each oyster.

* Moisten the oysters with a few drops of lemon juice, place half a teaspoon of salmon caviar near the hinge edge of the oysters and sprinkle with some very finely chopped fresh chives.

* Combine 1/4-cup each of very finely chopped fresh chives, parsley and tarragon with the grated zest of half a lemon and sprinkle this over the oysters, then moisten with a few drops of fine olive oil.

* Sprinkle each oyster with a few drops of red wine vinegar and a good dash of Madras curry powder.

* Slip a small, paper-thin slice of smoked Scottish salmon under each oyster, then moisten with a few drops of lemon juice and top with ground black pepper and either very finely chopped chives or shallots.

Once you've decided how to serve your oysters on the half shell, it's time to think about what you'll drink with them. Here are a few suggestions: icy cold full-bodied beer or lager, a well chilled muscadet, a cold fine French chablis, a non-vintage brut champagne from France, or iced Russian or Polish vodka.