" 'Twas a brave man who first ate an oyster," the old saying goes. So what about the first brave soul to stick one in a microwave oven?
It's like tossing a shotgun shell in the woodstove: Nothing good could come of it, so why tempt fate?
"Well, I heard it works," said Ellicott City Kenny, whose life is littered with remnants of failed experiments, including a rotary-engine Mazda and a video disc player.
So while his guests cowered in a corner he stuck a live, mud-encrusted bivalve in the atomic cooker, punched the starter and sent the rays flying.
"Poik!" said the oyster, loud and clear, as its shell split almost instantly.
Kenny, beaming, removed the oyster and popped it fully open with his thumbs, revealing a gray morsel that had been roasted to plump perfection in about five seconds.
Mark it down as another adaptive triumph for the Chesapeake oyster, that rock of muddy simplicity that has been feeding Marylanders since before they were Marylanders.
It's interesting that the first thing archeologists look for to identify prehistoric communities in Maryland is not pottery or bones but piles of discarded oyster shells, marking where Indians enjoyed the first oyster roasts.
Over the centuries the Maryland oyster has gone from Indian staple to lowly regarded hardship food among colonial settlers to its current status as a luxury item.
But why it's a special-occasion food today is a mystery, since besides being delicious the oyster is probably the easiest food on Earth to prepare, once it's out of the shell, and Chesapeake Bay remains the largest producer of wild oysters in the nation, perhaps the world.
Maybe now that the applicability of space-age cookery has been established, the lowly oyster will take its rightful place on the dinner tables of Bowie and LaPlata, Crofton and Glen Echo -- at least during winter season, when 1 million bushels or more are plucked from the floor of the bay.
Meantime, oyster lore remains fraught with misinformation, which we shall dispel in the remainder of this treatise.
Chincoteague oysters: Contrary to popular belief, Chincoteague oysters generally are not oysters grown in Chincoteague, Va. Mostly they are oysters caught in the Chesapeake and trucked to Chincoteague Bay, where they soak for a week or so until they acquire a salty taste and a higher price.
How to cook oysters: The best way to cook shucked oysters is to fry them. But only large oysters, called selects or counts, should be fried. Dip them in a milk-and-egg solution, coat with cornmeal and flour or any commercial pancake mix and fry in butter or oil until brown. They are sweet as cashews.
Smaller ones (standards) should be stewed, which is the second-best way to cook oysters. Saute a tablespoon of chopped onion in a stick (or less) of melted butter, add two cups of milk and a pint or 1 1/2 pints of oysters with juice, and heat until the edges of the oysters curl, which means they're done. Add salt, pepper and parsley flakes.
Roasted oysters: This is a delicacy long overlooked by Marylanders. Put a bunch of oysters in the shell on a cookie sheet and stick them in a medium oven until they go "poik!" Serve hot. Microwave tactics have already been discussed.
Oysters vs. other shellfish: There have been accusations that mollusks such as clams and scallops are juicier than oysters. These allegations were refuted by the shellfish poet Ogden Nash, who declared correctly that "Nothing's moister than an oyster."
Other openings: There are two ways to open raw oysters -- with an oyster knife or by carrying them aloft in an ultralight aircraft and dropping them on a rock.
Using a knife, you can tackle the oyster from its paper-thin outer edge, digging until you force entry, or from the hinge end, prying until it pops open. Never, never use a folding knife.
The traditional tactic is to try the thin edge first and go to the hinged end as a last resort, because you can break your knife there.
"Daddy always said try the front door first," said a veteran professional shucker, "and if it's painted shut, go around back."
How long do they last?: Fresh oysters in the shell last several weeks if kept in a damp, cool place and covered with a wet towel or wet newspapers. But don't wash the mud off until you're ready to eat them. That's what they live on.
To chew or not to chew: A raw oyster is chewed. Swallowing one whole is like chug-a-lugging French champagne.