27 January 2009

Consider the Oyster

An oyster leads a dreadful but exciting life. M.F. K. Fisher.

Consider the Oyster is one of my “Desert Island” books. If I were allowed only a dozen books, this would be close to the top!

This Christmas there were several cookbooks published that were larger than the table holding the two burner gas hot-plate in M.F. K. Fisher’s first French kitchen. Sometimes, bigger is not better. Consider the Oyster is under 100 pages with less than 30 recipes, yet it couldn’t be a bigger book.

The recipes are swathed in anecdotes about this sexy bivalve. When is an oyster stew not a stew? How are the ingredients in an oyster stew; cream, butter, salt and pepper and oysters, combined. Cook the oysters first? Heat the cream first? Dump the ingredients together?

Once you have mastered the soups, stews and bisques, Fisher teaches us to stuff, cream, roast, grill and even Rockefeller the salty mollusk.

She even includes a recipe for the pearl!

To Make a Pearl

1 healthy spay
1 mature oyster
1 bead
1 wire cage
scrubbing brushes
unnameable wound-astringent provided by the Japanese government
1 diving girl

Introduce the spat, which should be at least 1/75 of an inch long, to the smooth surface of the cage. Submerge him in quiet clean water, where the cage will protect him from the starfish, and frequent inspections and scrubbings will keep his rapidly growing shell free from boring-worms and such pests.

In three years prepare him for the major operation of putting the bead on his mantle (epithelium). Once the bead is in place, draw the mantle over it and ligature the tissues to form a wee sac. Put the sac into the second oyster, remove the ligature, treat the wound with the unnameable astringent, and after the oyster has been caged, put him into the sea.

Supervise things closely for seven years, with the help of your diving-girl. Any time after that you may open your oyster, and you have about one chance in twenty of owning a marketable pearl, and a small but equally exciting chance of having cooked up something really valuable.

As a child, I would have preferred that my mother made the pearls rather than the oyster stew. Today it is just the opposite, oysters are a favorite of mine as is M. F. K. Fisher. I worry, however, that Fisher's prophecy of the oyster is true of her life, very exciting but a bit dreadful! While she is a great writer I am afraid that everything one reads about her proves that she was not the greatest person. Judge for yourself. Try Joan Reardon's Poet of the Appetites: The Lives and Loves of M.F.K. Fisher. And, by all means, put on your pearls, shuck some oysters and consider M. F. K. Fisher.

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