Mr Smith goes to . . . an oyster bar

Molluscs could make excellent ashtrays

Initiation into sophisticated adult tastes is one long suspension of disbelief. Your first mouthful of beer? Fermented millrace. The fiery disc that acquainted the roof of your mouth with throat lozenges? Your rightful reaction was to hawk it into the school vitreous ware. Consider, then, the oyster. It's the latest foodstuff to be exploited by the concept eaterie and the gastrobar. You can also dine off freshly shucked molluscs at department stores and airport terminals. I'm a fan, but my disbelief hovers an inch or two off the ground. If, the next time I am bent over half a dozen bivalves, a kindly figure in a lab coat taps me on the shoulder and says it's all been a mistake, and that the only role for an oyster on the dinner table is as an ashtray, I wouldn't be at all surprised.

"The man who first ate a live oyster or clam was certainly a venturesome fellow," writes the admirable Peter Lund Simmonds, who was a trencherman-scribbler when the chef Anthony Bourdain was still a drop in the genetic bouillabaisse. According to his voracious Curiosities of Food of 1859, which has just been reissued by Ten Speed Books (£14.99), Simmonds tied on a bib for such piquant fare as "elephant's paws", salted rats and ant brandy, so his awe at the earliest oysterman is sobering.

For some diners, trace elements of our ancestors' boldness are the grit that makes the pearl of eating oysters. Men in particular also enjoy addressing the dish with all the gadgets and props that many establishments now provide. These could easily be mistaken for the blades of a safe-cracker, the forceps of a keyhole surgeon, and the exotic solutions you would expect in a narcotrafficker's pantry.

Some of us appreciate the oyster for its irreducibility, finessed over centuries. If you consult the history books - or, better still, plumb the London subsoil - you will find that oysters were once the bread and butter of the working man. A contemporary excavation has confirmed that sextons ministering to the plague dead had oysters in their snap tins. They were a prototypical fast food, jaggedly indifferent to the foibles of packaging or presentation. But we have lost the habit; as I said, the oyster is an acquired taste. We grow into it the way we learn to love a cigar (though the smoke of a Havana never quite dissipates the lingering first impression that the bouquet is two parts pensioner's underpants).

The catering trade is now geared up to guide us through this initiation. In the modern way, the oyster, like a good cup of coffee or a bale of rocket, has gone from being a pricey luxury you never see to being a pricey luxury you're hard put to avoid. The world is your oyster, if you'll overlook the expression.