Book Review: Robb Walsh, “Sex, Death and Oysters: A Half-Shell Lover’s World Tour”

Written by Book Reviews, Books

Robb Walsh – Sex, Death and Oysters: A Half-Shell Lover’s World Tour (2009, Counterpoint)
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To say that I’m not a foodie would be an act of extremely polite understatement. I spent much of my 20s subsisting on Top Ramen, corned beef hash, and pasta, and like my colleague Jon Cummings, I probably ate my first salad sometime around the age of 27. As for oysters, well…my only experience with the raw variety came in a Nashville restaurant about 10 years ago, and although it didn’t end as terribly as eating raw seafood in Tennessee probably can, it wasn’t all that pleasant, either — kind of like swallowing phlegm with Tobasco sauce.

As a reader, though, I’m easily persuaded by good writing; I’ve come away from impassioned defenses of music I know I hate (see: Floyd, Pink) feeling like I might actually be able to enjoy the stuff, simply because I enjoyed reading about it. My eighth-grade English teacher would probably disagree — and wave a goddamn sentence diagram at me, too — but I think that kind of contagious enthusiasm for one’s subject might be the most important asset a writer can have.

Robb Walsh, the author of Sex, Death and Oysters: A Half-Shell Lover’s World Tour, has that enthusiasm; simply put, the man loves oysters, and I mean L-O-V-E-S them — enough to spend five years traveling the globe in pursuit of what it is that differentiates one region’s fruits de mer from another’s. Walsh is the restaurant critic for the Houston Press, so he naturally begins his journey by shucking through the oyster bars in and around Galveston Bay (and vigorously fighting the widespread belief that Southern oysters will kill you, especially when eaten in moths without an R). From there, it’s off to Florida, where oystermen still farm their crop with old-fasioned tongs — and from there, Walsh goes all over the world, testing claims to half-shell greatness in the United Kingdom, France, Canada, the American Northwest, and anywhere else oysters are grown, often dragging his teenage daughters and girlfriend (turned fiancee, turned pregnant second wife) along with him.

The book’s lone Amazon reviewer describes Walsh as “the Bill Bryson of food writing,” which is overly kind — Walsh is funny and informative, but Sex, Death and Oysters doesn’t compare with, say, A Walk in the Woods. On the other hand, I’m not sure Bryson would be able to make such wonderful sense of the frequently insane oyster industry, or capture the flavors of his subjects so vibrantly; even for a relatively indifferent eater like me, the book makes shucking oysters over a kitchen sink sound like a grand old time.

And if you do count yourself an oyster lover, well, you’re in luck; not only does Walsh include a detailed guide to all the bars he visited during his travels, he also scatters a number of recipes throughout the book. Some of them sound frankly unappetizing (fried oyster nachos, anyone?), but the majority look pretty damn delicious — after you follow Walsh’s recommendations for purchasing a shucking knife and glove (and handy step-by-step instructions for popping the little buggers open), you’ll be tempted to give them all a try.

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