Paul Hurley: Oyster romance

Winnie Love

I have the taste of the sea in me.

Oysters are like sex. My first time, today, was special. As it should be.

Mine was a memorable introduction to an iconic sensual experience. I’ll try to recall the details, I’ll tell how it was for me.

Framed by the artist Paul Hurley, the event occurred away from the public gaze. In a darkened room an elegant dinner table was laid with a simple, formal setting for each of us: a linen napkin, silver fish knife and fork, lemons, Tabasco, some flowers. We were offered a glass of champagne and introduced to the subject in question.

Oysters, Hurley tells us, have been around for 200 million years. The species he has obtained is Crassostra Gigas from Wexford in Ireland. Information is delivered, like the amount of water to pass through an oyster in a day—an Olympic swimming pool full—and an explanation of the craft of opening the shell. A practical demonstration was accompanied by a poem by Robin Robertson.

Bandage your hand against the bladed shell
Work your blade well into the slot
(imagine a paint scraper at a rusted rim)
and prise the lid off keeping the juices in

We were nearly at the crucial point, the moment where I needed to trust that I would swallow and not gag. The artist, himself a recent initiate, said he liked to chew a couple of times before swallowing.

I picked out mine from the proffered tray, a beauty.

Before the abductor muscle that holds the oyster to its shell was severed, we studied the anatomy closely. I pondered the dualities that had stimulated the artist to undertake this investigation. The hard, solid permanence of the shell—piles of them, some 200 years old are still to be found—contrasts with the short-lived liquid flesh. I thought also of the immediate association oysters have with sex and of what Paul Hurley told us of their curious transsexual behaviour.

The flesh released from the shell was mine and it was, as promised, like eating the sea, and then I had another, this time spiked with tabasco, and then another wrapped in bacon, an Angel on Horseback. I wanted the experience but didn’t really want it witnessed; I covered my head as I’ve seen diners do in Europe when eating songbirds. Was this abjection, this giving up of my previous state of oyster virginity in such a formal, solemn manner?

The tone of the occasion was relaxed, almost informal. We were inhabiting the appropriate space, a special dinner with all the sensory requirements: the immaculately dressed maître d’, the best champagne, quality of linen. We inhabited it as curious sightseers or anthropologists, slightly outside the experience.

I intend to repeat the experience one day and, when I do, I’ll be relaxed and enjoy it, and I’ll thank Paul Hurley and his subtle, gentle artistry for showing me how.

4 February 2006