Notes from an author: Jay Rayner on oysters in New Orleans

In pursuit of the ultimate last meal on earth, one dish — in all its simple, unrefined glory — makes a lasting impression in the Big Easy.Sunday, 15 September 2019

In the early 1990s, as a young reporter finding my way, luck smiled upon me.

I was asked if I’d like to go on a press trip to New Orleans. Would I? The city was famed for two things: music and cooking. I loved my jazz, was already a sometime jazz pianist, and while I was years off being made a restaurant critic, my decisions were often belly-led. I imagined nights on Bourbon Street, zigzagging from one louche music bar to another, breaking off only to feast on gumbo and sugar-dusted beignets.

What I hadn’t expected was to be so thrilled by the oysters. As a child I’d been introduced to them by my mother [journalist and broadcaster Claire Rayner], who took me to lunch at Rules, London’s oldest restaurant, in Covent Garden. It began with oysters. I was enthralled by the accessories that accompanied them: the stand and the muslin-wrapped lemon and the fearsome looking bottle of Tabasco. It seemed to me the height of adulthood.

On that first night in New Orleans, we went to the Acme Oyster House on Iberville Street deep in the French Quarter, and I was introduced to a totally different oyster culture. Partly, it was the informality with which the bivalves were all but flung at us. Rules had white-jacketed waiters; here, oysters were shucked by big men with bare forearms like hams, and slapped down onto the bar like a challenge. But it was also the oysters themselves. I was used to something fragile and silvery, with the saline crash of the sea. These were big and white and creamy. They were an invitation to gorge, which — despite the jet lag — is what I did.

A quarter of a century later, when I came to write My Last Supper, a book on the pursuit of my last meal on earth and the stories behind the dishes and ingredients I’d chosen, I knew oysters would be a part of it. That in turn would mean a return to New Orleans. It’s a city defined by its location on the Gulf Coast and therefore access to what were, until relatively recently, some of the most productive wild oyster beds in the world. 

It was here in 1889 that Oysters Rockefeller was invented. Jules Alciatore, son of the founder of the venerable Antoine’s Restaurant, was looking for a dish to replace the snails that his customers came to him for, because of a shortage. He decided to put the topping of breadcrumbs, parsley, butter and other herbs that they used with their snails on to oysters instead and then bake them.

In a glorious piece of marketing spin, he named the dish after oil tycoon John D Rockefeller, because it was so rich. In turn, rival restaurant Arnaud’s created the likes of Oysters Bienville, topped with shrimp, mushrooms, green onions and various herbs, and a bunch of other cooked oyster dishes too. 

On my research trip I worked my way around many of these stations of the cross, enjoying the city’s old-school Southern charm. It’s a cliche to describe modern New Orleans as a gaudy tourist trap, but that’s to misunderstand its history. It’s always been a good-time town, there to serve the waves of sailors as they come off the ships. It’s one of the reasons jazz was born here, in the brothels of the French Quarter. 

Where oysters were concerned, the New Orleans I met this time around was a subdued city. BP’s Deepwater Horizon oil rig disaster of 2010 killed 11 people, and spilled more oil into the sea than any other petroleum industry accident in history, decimating the oyster beds. Many oyster fishermen had simply taken the multimillion-dollar compensation and retired. Where the beds once supplied bivalves to the entire US, now they produced only enough for local demand. 

One morning, I went to an oyster talk at the warehouse headquarters of the P & J Oyster Company, which has been around since 1876. We were told stories of the beds, and slurped prime raw product off the shell. Between oysters I asked Al Sunseri, president of the company, what he thought the appeal was. “It’s really the only animal you eat while it’s still alive,” he said simply. “Some people don’t want to know that, but it’s true.”

I downed another oyster and brooded on mortality. What better food could there be for a last supper?

My Last Supper: One Meal, a Lifetime in the Making by Jay Rayner, is published by Guardian Faber. RRP: £16.99. 

Published in the October 2019 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)

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