I blame Grace Jones for my trauma. I mean, everything that happened to me in this scenario is my own fault: It is I who saw that oysters were available on Fresh Direct for $1 a piece. It is I who decided to order a dozen Bluepoints even after my boyfriend told me he had no interest in slurping them down with me. It is I who bought a shucking knife for twice as much as the oysters (it’ll pay for itself eventually I thought, back when shucking seemed a tricky skill to master and not a harrowing atrocity to avoid). It is I who, in my constant fear that my brain is deteriorating and my personal evolution is atrophying, watched YouTube videos to teach myself the craft of gently but firmly prying open oyster shells without leaving any sign of the massacre that just took place, just like they do in restaurants.
Of course, I know, I could have gone to any buck-a-shuck oyster happy hour to pay the same amount without having to do any of the work, but it seemed... I don’t know? Glamorous? Elegantly brutal? Potentially endearing and maybe even profitable somehow if I ever find myself among wealthy people with a fleet of Wellfleets and no means to shuck? (Did I mention that my $24 knife folds into its handle, thus is completely portable? I bought this knife to give myself freedom.)
On top of all this, Grace Jones, per her tour rider, does her own shucking. The world would be a better place if more people were like Grace Jones. If nothing else, by learning to shuck, I was just doing my own part.
I was good at it. It only took one chipped-up oyster to get the hang of it. By the second attempt, I was impressing myself with ease with which I worked the knife into the oyster, twisted, and then glided it through the separated shell to make the mollusk slurpable. Finally, something I’m good at. The pop of a broken oyster hinge sounded like applause to me. It is barely audible. Okay, it’s silent. But it feels good to do it.
Certainly it offset the weirdness I felt about killing something with my bare hands. I’m typically American in that I hate to be reminded that my food was once sentient and living, even when that food’s goodness depends on it having been alive mere moments before it enters my mouth. Oysters aren’t quite relatable—they don’t have cute little doe eyes to stare into as you pry the life out of them, our most recent common ancestor lived something like 600 million years ago—but I did feel a little pang of sadness, like a knife going into my emotional hinge, when my boyfriend suggested that the oysters that were sitting in the fridge in a bowl under a damp towel must be “terrified.”
But whatever, doing things like restaurants is fun and makes you feel accomplished. I was probably on my third oyster when I noticed a reddish bump in its shell among the meat. I decided it was a blood clot. On one hand, I didn’t think oysters had...blood like that? On the other, raw clams taste mostly like blood to me. Confused, I just decided to throw that oyster away. After all, I had a dozen.
The second blood clot came a few shucks later. How lazy do oysters have to be to lay around and get blood clots? Isn’t laying around what they do? While trying to imagine the life of a particularly sedentary mollusk, I kind of probed the clot with my knife. It bloomed a set of translucent appendages. Once my eyes adjusted, I realized I wasn’t hallucinating or, I don’t know, plunged into some magical realism literature from the ‘80s in which the oysters I felt ambivalent about murdering were producing pearly symbols of my own misgivings.
I realized inside the shell was a small, mostly crimson crab.
It lay there defenseless, oblivious and gently loose limbed as a newborn human. But it wasn’t cute, it was a crab. “Wee beastie” would be charitable. Now tasked with having to kill yet another thing when I was trying to only kill one thing (or one species of thing), I tossed the crab in the toilet and flushed, watching its legs sway a lazy goodbye. I threw away the oyster, assuming it had been defiled beyond consumption. There’s nothing like a small bottom dweller to remind you that so much of the seafood we eat is basically just aquatic bugs. I’m slowly acclimating to the idea of eating bugs—I’ve had crickets in tacos and ants in guac, thinking I should get used to doing so in case I’m forced to if/when civilization starts collapsing. They were fine, but that doesn’t mean I’m ready to eat all bugs, including the one in my oyster.
Immediately I Googled because, obviously, what the fuck. It turns out that not only are these crabs common, they’re considered a delicacy. In 1907, the New York Times suggested serving these “pea crabs” (or “oyster crabs”) mixed in mayo on a bed of lettuce (a recipe after Joan Crawford’s heart if ever there were). The Times suggested the crabs, which take it upon themselves to move into the oyster’s shell, are “friends” to the oyster for being able to bring in food the oyster wouldn’t itself. But in the ensuing century, I suppose we’ve learned a thing or two. Crabs are nobody’s friend. On Wikipedia they are labeled a parasite because their presence can harm their host oyster. That’s for the oysters and the crabs to sort out. This is none of my business and I never wanted it to be my business in the first place! I didn’t ask for crabs!
Apparently, pea crabs have a bunch of other sea-creature residencies including the rectum of sea cumbers. That’s really just so rude.
But to eat these crabs is to love them, apparently. A blog called the Edible Ocean claims pea crabs offer “a nice crunch and a crazy umami flavor.” Mmmm, I’ll take their word for it. A commenter on a Pangea Shellfish post about pea crabs says, “Usually I let the crab crawl around on my tongue for a while before crushing and eating it.” That just sounds sadistic?
I found a few more pea crabs as I shucked. One seemed dead, which made me wonder about the quality of the oyster I was holding, but I ate it anyway. I didn’t throw up anywhere but on the inside.
Please don’t look at this:
I don’t know where I go from here—I learned a skill only to have its usefulness snatched away by a tiny, nearly invisible claw. I know getting freaked out about these crabs is precious of me, but the stomach curdles at what the stomach curdles at. Crabs of any sorts are like vampires—anything less than a consensual entry of residence by them is a violation.
And so just as crabs enter the homes of unwitting oysters, they entered my home. And just as they infect the lives of their hosts, I guess, they’ve infected my mind maybe now I’ve infected yours with my story. We’re all the same, vertebrates and invertebrates, parasites and hosts. It’s the circle of life. I imagine Grace Jones bellowing that song with pea crab legs stuck between her teeth. I feel like she’d be a lot less precious about such an encounter.
I’m so sorry for all of this.