A Quest for Why Littlenecks Have None and Steamers Do

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Steamers have little ones
Littlenecks have none
If seafood names made any sense
There wouldn’t be any fun

Being a native of New England I was raised on seafood. All manners of fish have made its way into my digestive processes.

To be honest, in the beginning I was fond of just those culinary masterpieces called fish sticks. Where they got the three-dimensional rectangular fish to fit into the succulent crusty outside I never was able to find out. My mother told me a story (that I apparently took to heart) that an uncle of once told me I need special hooks to catch them. I tried but I could never find those either.

Eventually my appreciation of the delicacies of the sea expanded to include pretty much anything.  I would even come to enjoy seaweed salad or other forms of what use to seem to me nothing but slimy strands that stuck to you when swimming.

Despite their wonderful taste I always wondered about the first human to eat an oyster.

This was not an original thought. Depending on which version you prefer several people, Jonathan Swift being my personal favorite, have written some version of the line,

“Was a bold man, that first ate an oyster.”

Ladies and gentlemen, will you eat any oysters before dinner?
With all my heart. [Takes an oyster.] He was a bold man, that first eat an oyster
They say, oysters are a cruel meat, because we eat them alive; Then they are an uncharitable meat for we leave nothing to the poor; and they are an ungodly meat, because we never say grace.
Faith, that’s as well said, as if I had said it myself.

Jonathan Swift, Polite Conversations

When you think about it, pulling from a pile what appears to be a rock covered in slime and mud, battling to open it revealing a graying brown oozy substance, then slurping it down one’s throat seems counterintuitive, if not a bit risky.

The only possible reason is desperation. Like a homeless, starving person pawing through the trash for a half-eaten sandwich except they don’t know it’s a sandwich or what it contains since they’ve never seen one.

But living near the ocean, we had the benefit of all those “bold” people before us who paved the way for us to savor the contents of those shells.

“Hmm, what would go well on top to enhance the flavor of an oyster?” Something often described as sweet by aficionados and like swallowing with a bad cold by those less inclined.

Joe Broadmeadow

But the names always confused me. Littlenecks have no visible necks even once they are opened. Steamers, if one were to describe them to someone who has never seen them, are small bivalve shells with, of course, little necks protruding from these shells.

If one is kind, one warns those unfamiliar with steamers of the proclivity of these shellfish to spit given the chance in a last act of defiance before being eaten. I never did, preferring to see the surprise when it happened.

 And in an example of divine inspiration someone who’d consumed an oyster thought, “Hmm, what would go well on top to enhance the flavor of an oyster?” Something often described as sweet by aficionados and like swallowing with a bad cold by those less inclined.

“I know! Let’s take horseradish—another acquired taste—mix it with ketchup, or catsup, or however you spell it, and slather that on it.”

“Yeah, but what about the steamers? What do we do with them?”

“Butter! Everything tastes better with butter.” Which is one of the fundamental laws of the universe.

While these delicacies can be consumed year-round, there is something magical about eating them in the summer. They remind me of the lazy summer days without school when the whole family—aunts, uncles, cousins, and friends— would gather several times in July and August in Cumberland, Rhode Island, and steam, shuck, dip, and slurp our way to nirvana.

It may have been a bold person (I suspect it was a woman since they are infinitely more inquisitive and courageous than most men) who first ate an oyster, but they are also my personal heroes for endowing the world with such pleasure.

One has not lived until you can sit under the last rays of a summer day fading to twilight, satiated by a dozen or two of oysters, a bucket of steamers, and a healthy pile of littlenecks still bathing in the salt water of their birth, while watching the stars appear one by one in the sky.

The Man had sure a Palate cover’d o’er With Brass or Steel, 
that on the rocky Shore First broke the oozy Oyster’s pearly Coat,
And risqu’d the living Morsel down his Throat.
What will not Lux’ry taste? Earth, Sea,
and Air Are daily ransack’d for the Bill of Fare.

John Gay, Trivia: Or, the Art of Walking the Streets of London

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