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Jun 20, 2009 09:51 AM

When does the oyster die?

In a recently-viewed episode of Good Eats, Alton Brown mentioned that properly stored in a refrigerator with a damp towel over the container, oysters could live as long as a week. Then he showed how to open and prepare them.

So, when exactly is an oyster no longer alive? Is it when the shell is forcibly opened, when the oyster knife goes under it to separate it from the bottom shell, or... or... or.... I can't say it.

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  1. I'd guess when the knife is slipped under the shell. But I have the same horrible suspicion that you do. And I'm morbidly curious and awaiting a definitive answer.

    3 Replies
    1. re: shanagain

      I did find this extraordinarily nonauthoritative source, which does mention flash-freezing, which brings me cold comfort.

      1. re: Cinnamon

        Hmm. Neither feels satisfactory. (Potentially because of the "if you doubt, let it sit on your tongue for a minute" addition.)

        I've been googling as well, and I suspect the answer might not be so simple - like, maybe it dies the minute you give it that one sharp "chew" (my method - slide into mouth, give one hard hit with the molars, then down the hatch) - but if you don't follow my method, then what?

        Something funny - after getting over the original idea of when it happens, and at what point - including w/in my anatomy - I am now craving oysters on the half-shell more than I have in years.

        I'm mean. All the bi-valves say so.

        1. re: shanagain

          Actually 2 to 3 quick chomps should dispatch the little devils!!!

    2. The original comment has been removed
      1. I'd always assumed when you cracked the shell (from exposure to the air) but this post got me to thinking there's been times when the shell was slightly open and you tap it and then it closes.

        So now I think maybe when the lemon juice hits it. Definitely when I chew it a few times. I'm not sure there's any need to be squeamish about it, it's not like it's an animal with nervous system and ability to feel pain. Kind of like how the potato doesn't die until you peel it and eat it, until then it can always sprout in the right conditions.

        1 Reply
        1. re: hsk

          That's why my preferred way of eating potatoes is cut into chunky strips, deep-fried and salted. Much safer!

        2. It's fairly difficult to define the moment of death in a creature that has no brain or heart. It is definitely past the point of no return once the shell is forced open, but many of the individual cells will still be alive even after you swallow it.
          If an oyster is fresh, really fresh, and you squirt it with lemon after you open it, it should squirm. That doesn't necessarily mean it's alive though.
          Some of the ganglia will undoubtedly be damaged when the shell is forced open, which will cause the non-reflexive functions of the nervous system to shut down. So, if you're worried about whether it can feel you eating it, then the answer is no. Oysters have only marginally more sensory perception than a rock to begin with, and that will be destroyed when the shell is opened.
          They also can't think, and thus have no idea what is going on even when they can sense.

          11 Replies
          1. re: danieljdwyer

            >>They also can't think, and thus have no idea what is going on even when they can sense.<<

            Had I read this part first, I'd swear you were discussing drivers in LA. :)

            1. re: bulavinaka

              Don't get so regional! ... just backtrack a bit further and all new vistas blossom ...
              "...have only marginally more sensory perception than a rock to begin with, and that will be destroyed when the shell is opened."

              1. re: TheDescendedLefticleOfAramis

                It's dead when it explodes crushed between my tounge and the roof of my mouth with just a touch of cocktail sauce or nothing at all if it is particularly salty.

                1. re: James Cristinian

                  I down with a spritz of lemon ... sip/sip ... some cocktail sauce off the shell ;-)

                2. re: TheDescendedLefticleOfAramis

                  Sorry to sound provincial - LA is my home (one of a handful born here). Nothing has changed my opinion for the better since I last posted here over five years ago.

                  1. re: bulavinaka

                    well, "home" moves ...
                    and, perhaps, this is a good ...
                    or even necessary.

              2. re: danieljdwyer

                I think that danieljdwyer summarizes the situation pretty well. They're definitely not dead by any definition simply from opening the shell, if it's done carefully (doomed, certainly, but not dead). In my invertebrate zoology class, many years ago, we opened clams - which are basically the same thing - to conduct various observations, and they stayed alive for quite a long time if kept moist and relatively cool.

                1. re: FlyFish

                  FlyFish, I didn't eat bivalves for years after I took that class. Knowing all of the functions and names of the body parts detracted from the allure.

                  ETA: Ooops, just realized how old this post is

                2. re: danieljdwyer

                  I've always loved the French test for freshness in oysters: elles doivent grincer (they must wince) when you sprtiz them with lemon juice. Note that l'huitre is feminine in gender...

                  1. re: danieljdwyer

                    Correction! They do have a heart and it pumps colorless blood.

                    1. re: danieljdwyer

                      "It's fairly difficult to define the moment of death in a creature that has no brain or heart."

                      For the same reason, coroners have difficulty when the deceased was a lawyer.

                    2. The original comment has been removed