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Pearls of wisdom about oysters

March 13, 2006|Mark Kurlansky | MARK KURLANSKY is the author, most recently, of "The Big Oyster: History On a Half Shell."

There comes a time in every writer's life when it becomes necessary to recognize what people really care about. I have had such a moment since the publication of my new book about oysters.

I wrote this book because I realized that, through telling the history of the development and destruction of New York City's oyster beds, I could tell the entire history of New York, its dining and culture, politics and government, and raise questions about the destruction of urban environments. People do seem to be interested in these issues, but I have noticed that there is something else they really want to know about.

During every interview, usually early on in the questioning, the interviewer asks something like, "So, are they an aphrodisiac? How does it work?"

One critic in an otherwise enthusiastic review complained that I had failed to give more information about the role of oysters as an aphrodisiac. I did give it more than a page. But it seems clear that in today's conspicuously dysfunctional society, one type of dysfunction is more preoccupying than all the others.

Had I watched more television, I would have realized this, because it seems that a great deal of programming is sponsored by pharmaceutical companies selling aphrodisiacs. And perhaps this is what is -- forgive the expression -- stimulating all this discussion.

I always assumed that aphrodisiacs were largely mythical, that any placebo would work if you believed in it. Oysters have an erotic appearance, as does rhinoceros horn in a different way, and so they are thought to be aphrodisiacs.

When the Dutch first came to New York, they put their hopes in striped bass, partly because they had never seen such a fish before and because they noted that when Indians caught stripers, they would give them to their wives, "who looked for them anxiously." In earlier, less-scientific times, the process was usually not mysterious. People in the Caribbean believe conch to be an aphrodisiac, so it is traditionally served along with liquor and women in Caribbean houses of prostitution.

The same concept prevailed in 19th century New York, where oyster cellars -- bars in those peculiarly New York half-basements of Manhattan buildings -- featured drinks, oysters, snuggly private rooms and women, in the words of one city chronicler of the time, "all of one kind."

Oysters were obligatory fare at Roman orgies. Galen, who was Marcus Aurelius' doctor, prescribed oysters to remedy a declining sexual appetite. In "Don Juan," Byron ascribes "amatory" power to oysters. Giovanni Casanova, the Venetian adventurer and infamous seducer, believed in the power of oysters, which seems an authoritative, first-hand endorsement.

Then there were the French, who also believed oysters to be an aphrodisiac but had a curious array of uses for the artificially stimulated libido. Rousseau, Diderot and Voltaire were all rumored to have eaten several dozen oysters when in search of inspiration. The use of an aphrodisiac to further philosophical musings strikes me as a peculiarly Gallic conceit.

Napoleon's enemies said he always ate oysters before battles, and then left the gratification for the battlefield -- the saddest misuse of an aphrodisiac I have ever heard of, but pretty much the advice that coaches give to teenage athletes.

During the French Revolution, both Danton and Robespierre, whenever their revolutionary fervor seemed to be failing them, were said to resort to several dozen on the half shell. Anyone who was active in the 1960s -- politically -- understands this link between sexual stimulation and revolutionary zeal.

I think what people really want to know is: Do oysters work? Because I have always assumed it was a myth, oysters would never work for me. But is there any reason other than blind faith that they would work for anyone?

Well, they contain zinc, which is a building block for testosterone. That's something, anyway.

There isn't much evidence one way or the other. I thought a good source would be Sonya "the Black Widow" Thomas, a 37-year-old, 100-pound woman who holds the world's oyster eating record: 46 dozen in 10 minutes. I asked her how she felt after eating 46 dozen and she said, "Good, not full." She ate another six dozen in three minutes to enhance her record. "That was too much. After 52 dozen, I was very full."

Thomas loves eating, and her nickname, which comes from the spider's habit of killing males, is only a reference to her ability to out-eat men. A native of Korea, she had never heard that oysters were aphrodisiacs and added that she experienced no such feelings. "But what I really love is raw oysters with cabbage," she said. "Oh, that's so-o-o-o good!"

But that's not really the same thing.

People have been throwing me oyster parties of late, and I'm keeping my eyes open. I noticed one friend downing quite a few one evening, but when I checked with his wife the next day, she said he had fallen asleep.

Oysters don't come with any guarantees, but they don't come with any disturbing warnings either, such as "after four hours, call a marine biologist."

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