Writer Alicia Kennedy was a die-hard vegan until, as a result of a family tragedy, she found solace and comfort in a half shell. She shared her story with The Splendid Table.
I’ve been eating oysters. Now, this wouldn’t be news, but I’ve been vegan for five years. I’m a vegan food writer, and I depend on my nut-cheese diet. And I’ve abandoned it for mid-day lunches that I can’t share on Instagram.
I started eating oysters soon after my brother’s sudden death. On my first trip out of the house alone, I went to the John Dory Oyster Bar for a book party. There -- a table of oysters --- four varieties on ice, were the centerpiece of the room. I got a cocktail and sat by the window. Stared at the oysters. Thinking about past summer lunches on restaurant decks, that jutted out into the Great South Bay. What was it my dad always ordered on the half-shell? Clams? Or were they oysters? Either way, my brother never ate them.
The smell of seafood made him cry as a baby. In his twenty-six years on earth, that never changed. But he would wave chicken wings in my face every time I tried to go vegetarian as a teenager. Meat was always something we could agree on: Taco Bell, gyros at our neighborhood Greek restaurant, chicken fingers. When I quit meat, he took it personally. Every time we ate together after that, my brother shook his head, confused and annoyed by my choice not to be who I was as a child. On our last vacation together, a few months before he passed, he was still offering me chicken fingers.
Photo: Sarah Keough
Now, at this oyster bar, in a fog of grief, I didn’t know why I was doing anything, much less not eating oysters. I walked to the table and quickly put two on a plate, hunched over and slurped them down.
The brine, the fleshiness, immediately made me feel alive. And only slightly guilty. God had taken someone from me, and I could inhale some of his creatures in exchange. I first confessed my sin to my mother. Then, my boyfriend became an accomplice in extravagant oyster lunches. I dabbled in mussels but they didn’t have the same immediacy. You needed a utensil. They weren’t raw. Oysters, fleshy and immediate and always still tasting of the sea where they lived, satisfied my new, deep rage.
I’d cared so much, for so long, about animals, even letting my choice disconnect me from people I loved—now there didn’t seem to be a point in trying so hard to be a good vegan anymore. I started thinking about going beyond oysters. A secret visit to Brooklyn’s famous Peter Luger Steakhouse became a common fantasy. There, I could draw blood. I could suck marrow from a bone.
On Christmas Eve, with family, I got incredibly drunk and confessed to all of them, “I’ve been eating oysters!” I told my cousins, aunts and uncles that I wanted to eat something that had been alive. I wanted to take something from God. Everyone understood. Everyone had been there to see me scream when I saw him in the casket.
My uncle told me a story. When I was very small, my grandma would take me to a restaurant to watch me eat an entire lobster. She thought it was funny, he said, that my little body could contain such a large appetite. I was always encouraged to satisfy that appetite, to eat everything. The point is: maybe veganism was against my very nature.
These days, the intense fog of grief lifts on occasion, and I can make sense of my choice. Or, at least, I know that I have to impose some order or who knows what else grief could make me do? My brother, who never stopped wanting me to give up veganism and eat a damn chicken finger, will have to be a better ghost if he wants to get his wish.
I keep eating oysters. It’s not about vengeance anymore. They feel no pain, I read. When I have a chance between appointments, I sit at the Grand Central Oyster Bar and have my boring old order of Blue Points judged by the gruff old man behind it. I’m from the same place as these oysters, I want to tell him. I’m trying to taste the past. I’m trying to taste what it would be like to be someone I used to be, someone whose brother was alive.
Alicia Kennedy is a writer for the Village Voice and other publications. This story was based on a piece she wrote for Hazlitt, "The First Time I Ate an Oyster