Aw, Shucks

Don't be shy; now is the time for oyster lovers to slurp those shells.

There are many unpredictable and odd ways to determine that fall has finally arrived in the Sonoran Desert. Perhaps it is a bit unnatural to celebrate the arrival of pumpkins in the markets when the temperatures still hover in the 90s, but we take what we can find. One tell-tale sign is the arrival of fresh-farmed oysters, something beyond those run-of-the-mill muscley big boys from the Gulf.

Oysters are best during fall and winter because they spawn during the summer. March peaks out in oyster frenzy with the bulk of harvest, production and plump delivery, but I always celebrate that first whisper of cool air in the evenings and wait for that first month when farmed oysters begin to surface on menus around town.

Of course, everyone has heard the saying that you should only really eat oysters in months that have an R in them. Unless, you live in the Pacific Northwest, where they are inclined to eat oysters year 'round, or, as they like to say, "right on through Juner, Jurly and Arugurst." But that's up there. Down here we literally have to wait until the fall begins to bring with it the first hint of farmed oysters that have any kind of character or distinction.

There is a delightful mystery about oysters. Part of this, of course, is the lore, the aphrodisiacal allure. Casanova supposedly ate 50 raw oysters every morning with his mistress of the moment. He contended that the high phosphorous and iodine contributed to stamina and his general studliness. M.F.K. Fisher, in her remarkable treatise on oysters, declares that the oyster's desired quality is "psychological and might have to do with an oyster's odor, consistency and probably its strangeness."

There is something strange about an oyster, how it coaxes out an elemental nature in people, breaking people open so that conversation flows effortlessly. Perhaps it is the rush of fresh protein to the brain that awakens our senses, or maybe the implosion of phosphorous in the brain and extremities. Maybe it's the ritual with knives, odd condiments and ice, but oysters get people glowing and set the senses humming. If you bring the right companion, you'll be rewarded with the hushed awe, the eyes tipped shut in ecstasy, the kiss of ocean brine.

Although I generally resist the impulse to categorize and judge, a few litmus tests generally reveal the fundamental core of a person's nature. These rarely have to do with philosophical tendencies, political alignments or religious convictions. My list is short. Do they understand the deep and complex nuances of garlic? How intimate is their grasp of the euphoric rush and delights of capsicum? How well do they get along with children and dogs, those beings gifted with the unerring instinct to swiftly sum up character? And, of course, can they eat a raw oyster?

Don't overlook the small joy of inducting the uninitiated. Should you find yourself really needing to know what someone is made of, invite them out for oysters. Prepare yourself as, on occasion, a fit of gagging is involved. But then, once they get past the daunting task of tipping the shell and drinking the brine, be on the lookout for the soft sinking look in the center of the eye, the dreamy inward lean. The grip on the edge of the table should loosen, followed by a puzzled, immediate grasp for language to describe the creamy aftertaste, the complex, sometimes slightly metallic, a bit salty, perhaps buttery flavor that haunts the palate. Then, if they are truly hooked, a tentative hand will venture forward for another shell.

That's when you place the order for the next dozen and entertain the possibility that you've found a mate for life.

Of course there are always people whose palates betray them. They will physically recoil, choke, gasp and be reduced to a momentary state of infancy. Expect to be stared at with a good deal of rebuke, sputtering anger and indignation. Quite possibly they won't answer future phone calls. Don't sweat it; this was a potential disaster waiting to happen, a future embittered ex, someone who probably was going to cost you a fortune in lawyers' fees anyway.

You'll want to save your hard-earned cash for oysters. Not many restaurants in town actually serve oysters worth ordering, but those that do are worth ferreting out. Sadly, we're in the midst of a red tide and many of the most prized and cherished oysters are being affected by higher prices and jumpy flight schedules. Don't be holding out for the elusive and highly prized Kumomoto anytime soon. But some very good farmed oysters are beginning to surface around town. Know your oyster and you shall know your own bliss.

Snow Creek: Farmed in Washington, these arrive in a deep, delicate, striped shell. Small-bodied oysters, they are creamy and tender with a high, sweet, pure flavor, a tender flesh that fairly pulses on the tongue.

Umpqua: Farmed in Oregon, this long-body briny beauty has a sweet and clear flavor, a medium body and a tiny, tender heart that releases a rush of seawater on the tongue.

Chef Creek: Farmed in British Colombia's Baynes Sound, this squat little squab of an oyster is compact and has a buttery richness and a slightly silty texture, and leaves a lingering, almost sweet aftertaste. Very rich.

Quilcenes: Farmed in Washington, these small-bodied oysters have a snappy flesh, and a steely and briny flavor that brings to mind salty flats, marshland, sea birds and rich ocean air.

Malpeque: Flown in from Prince Edward Island, these oysters are sometimes not the freshest choice, but they are rich in flavor. A serious briny jolt, their clean flavor is matched with a slightly chewy texture and a slightly bitter aftertaste. An oyster lover's oyster.

For more information on oysters and to see what's been freshly flown in, try the following restaurants:

Kingfisher (323-7339): The 'Fish probably offers the most extensive oyster menu in town. We remember when it used to have an oyster bar and shucker out in an exhibition area, but times have changed, although the quality of oysters has not. As the restaurant usually offers up to five different types of oysters during season, be sure to call and find out what has just been flown in.

Fuego (886-1795): While Chef Alan Zeman officially celebrates oysters with his March Mania oyster fest, you can usually choose from two or three different types of oysters this time of year. An ongoing special that's hard to beat is oysters and appetizers half off during happy hour. For oysters that are fresh off the farm, shucked to order, that's a hard call to beat.

Bistro Zin (299-7799): You can usually find one or two types of farmed oysters here. Call ahead to check on availability.