Saturday, July 30, 2016

Consider the Oyster



One of the things that has struck me since I’ve started reading the works of M.F.K. Fisher is that she would have been a popular blogger. Many of her books are comprised of individual essays and stories that would be perfect blog posts. Some of the essays are personal—sometimes deeply so—and others are informative.

Consider the Oyster is a short read. It begins simply—with the life of an oyster (and in a time when we place high value sustainable food sources, an interesting description of how they live), and goes on to explore a range of favorite dishes that feature oysters: raw, fried, stuffing, Rockefeller—if she had been a blogger today, I’d wager she’d travel to New Orleans to find the best po’ boy in the region. She also spends an entire chapter talking about the best drinks to pair with oysters (Chablis, Guinness, sherry, whiskey).

On a trip to London, M.F.K. Fisher hears a tale of an American who greatly worried pub staff by eating a plate of raw oysters while drinking whiskey. Convinced the combination of whiskey and raw oysters would transform into a poisonous solid mass, the wait staff sent a constable to check on the intrepid tourist to ensure he was okay.

The subject of pearls inevitably comes up, and Fisher mentions girls in Asia who were trained as pearl divers. The outfits the girls wear, the ancient marketplaces that sold the treasures they found, so many anecdotes are provided—Fisher was a wealth of information about cooking around the world. Of course, she draws mostly upon her own experiences in France and elsewhere, but the historical pieces are always fascinating and often really unusual.


Family history also plays a strong role in her works. In Consider the Oyster, she recounts her mother’s days at boarding school, and the secret rituals called “midnight feasts,” in which they indulged in a decadent oyster loaf. In an effort to recreate the memory, she seeks out a number of recipes. One involves blending oysters with breadcrumbs, butter, eggs, and seasoning, placed in a mold and baked. For me, the more intriguing one was hollowing out a loaf of bread, brushing it with butter and toasting it, then filling it with fried oysters. Much like a po’ boy, for sure!

A project I’ve been working on for a number of years is documenting my own family’s recipes. This has its challenges. Not the least of which is that not only was the family small and fragmented, but also that precision is not a goal when writing the family favorites down. The list of ingredients serves more aptly as reminders. I certainly do this as well. Many of my recipes, including ones featured on this blog, are guided more by whimsy than accuracy. Cooking, as an art, really should be. Ingredients are substituted from time to time. 

Inspiration takes hold just as strongly as any Muse for painting or poetry, and you’re compelled to grab a spice off the shelf that may transform a favorite into something even more magnificent. Or not. There are failures, too.

Part of the fun of recapturing the family favorites is trying to discern what was meant by sometimes esoteric notes in the margins. Or recalling my great-grandmother saying something like “stir it until it feels right.” Feels right? It takes years to learn such nuances. Luckily, my partner in this project—my mom—remembers a lot and is a talented cook in her own right.

Soon we’re embarking on a journey to where our family comes from, Eastport, Maine, to gather more research and continue to compile our recipes. An earlier version of this book was a homemade project, printed on hand-crafted paper and given to an inner circle of friends. Within the next year or so, a revised and professionally done version will be available.

In the meantime, as a preview, here’s a recipe for our own oyster stew. Remarkably simple, but incredibly satisfying.

Oyster Stew

1 pint of shucked oysters with oyster liquid (ask for a generous portion of the liquid when ordering the oysters, as this is what makes the stew great)
½ stick of butter
1½ cups of light cream
Salt and pepper to taste
(And if you follow M.F.K. Fisher’s advice, be generous with the paprika)

Place oysters and liquid in sauce pan and heat to a gentle simmer. Watch for edges of oysters to curl as a way to test that they are cooked.

Add butter and let sit until melted.

Add light cream and heat gently, making sure not to bring to a boil, add salt and pepper to taste.

Serve with oyster crackers and a good loaf of crusty bread.


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