“Can you tell me what the difference is between the flavor of these two oysters?”
… well, we can certainly try! We can talk about facts: farmer, growing location, farming method, species, etc. We can give generalities about the growing location related to growth rate, productivity, salinity, and temperature. We can talk about seasonality, shell shape, preparation, and freshness. We can tell anecdotes.
But actually describing oyster flavor is famously difficult, frequently ridiculous, and intensely personal. It's difficult and easy to ridicule because sometimes the difference is more of a feeling than a flavor. It’s personal not only to the human doing the tasting… you have to factor in taste sensitivity, life history, and vocabulary... but also to the oyster. Oysters are living animals, and flavor and condition can vary widely even between neighboring bivalves harvested at the same place and time.
Because we think it's a good idea to approach difficult things with humor and self deprecation whenever possible: the Mystery Oyster Contest, where people are tasked with differentiating oysters from one another, is meant to be silly, and in that, at least, we think it succeeds.
The contest starts with an amazing oyster raw bar… we bring in oysters of various species from across the country and the flavor spectrum. Using Rama tokens, you buy however many of these fancy oysters you feel like eating: 2, 4, or 6 at a time. We give you a ballot with your platter, and a few clues, and you simply fill out the ballot with your best guess as to what they are. Hints are given.
We call this part of the contest “pool play,” and it lasts until 4 pm on Rama day. After that, we total up the scores… awarding points for getting the species correct, if not the specific variety… and invite the top three scorers to the final round, which happens during the awards ceremony at 5:30.
The final round involves a bit of showmanship... it's like a sudden death spelling bee crossed with pin the tail on the donkey. You’ll be blindfolded, and handed an oyster. We encourage you to talk about the oyster, describing the shell shape, the size, and yes: the flavor. You will have already encountered the oyster in the pool play. You make a guess. We cheer you on, right or wrong. If there’s no clear winner after one round (if two or more people guess correctly, or if nobody does), we settle the matter with Rock Paper Scissors. (See earlier reference to silliness).
This year's Mystery Oyster Contest will feature oysters of all five species commonly eaten in North America, with a few interesting comparisons thrown in the mix. If you want to get the back story on all the oysters, and a leg up on the competition, we encourage you to buy tickets for Rowan Jacobsen's oyster tasting, happening earlier in the day. (Read what Rowan has to say about oyster flavor, here).
Your main competition here includes Adrienne Anderson, food stylist, cook extraordinaire, and two time mystery oyster champ, and Michael Li, an oyster superfan.
Ready, set, taste!
(The 5 oyster species commonly found on menus in the US, as photographed by the incredible Jim Henkens. If you can guess the species just by looking at the shell, you are well on your way to rocking the mystery oyster contest.)