April 21, 2012

R is for Oyster

(I'm coming back! And what better way to ease back into writing than by posting a short essay by M. F. K. Fisher? Enjoy.)

R is for Oyster
By M.F.K. Fisher, from Consider the Oyster (C)1941

C. Pearl Swallow
He died of a bad oyster.

That is carved on a tombstone in a graveyard in Maine -- Paris Hill, I think the place is called. The man's name was good for such an end, but probably the end was not.

If Mr. Swallow really died of a bad oyster he was a most miserable man for some hours, certainly. The bad oyster itself was rotten to his taste, so that he knew as soon as he had eaten it that he was wrong. Perhaps he worried a little about it, and then forgot and ate other things to rub the coppery taste from his tongue. He may, even in Maine, have washed it down with a drink.

In two or five or six hours, though, he remembered. He felt faint, and cold fingers whuddered over his skin, so that he reeled and shivered. Then he was sick, violently and often. He could barely lift his head, for the weakness and the dreadful cramps in his belly. His bowled surged, so that he felt they would drain his very heart out of him. And, God, he was thirsty, thirsty. . . . I'm dying, he thought, and even in his woe he regretted it, and did not believe it. But he died.

Perhaps he died of a bad oyster. Oysters can be bad, all right, if they are stale and full of bacteria that make for putrefaction. Mushrooms can be deadly, too. But mushrooms and oysters are alike in that they take the blame, because of superstition and something innately mysterious about their way of life, for countless pains that never are their fault.

It is true that people have died from eating mushrooms, because there are at least two deadly ones and innocently or not, men have been fed them. It is true, too, that some men have eaten rotten oysters and died, hideously, racked with vomiting.

But quite often, I feel sure, mushrooms and oysters too are blamed for sickness that could equally be caused by many things like piggishness or nerves or even other poisons.

What man knowingly would eat a bad oyster, anyway? A bad oyster looks old and disagreeable in its shell, and it smells somewhat of copper and somewhat of rotten eggs. Of course, it might be hidden in a pie or a patty or under a coating of rich spiced sauce in a restaurant. But even so, a man's tongue would warn him that something was very wrong, I think, unless he was half under the table he sat at.

(In this, the oyster is kinder than the mushroom, which can taste most delicious when it is most deadly. And that is seldom, I insist.)

And in case a man's tongue warns him that he has a last swallowed that gastronomical rarity, a bad 'un, he should leave the board at once and do what men have always know how to do, even the dainty ones, and get rid of it.

There should be no mistaking it, once on the tongue. When people say, "I must have eaten a bad oyster yesterday . . . I've felt a bit dauncy ever since!" you can be sure that they have eaten a great many other things, and have perhaps drunk over well, but that they certainly have not swallowed what is so easy to blame. If so, they would have known the unpleasant truth immediately, because it would taste so thoroughly nasty . . . and of course within six hours or less they would have been sick as hell, or even dead.

Probably more people eat oysters now than ever before, because it is easier to ship them from their beds and bottoms to the dining tables of this nation and any other nation whose people still have time for such things.

The old-fashioned habit of sniffing each oyster more or less delicately before swallowing it is as nearly extinct as its contemporary trick of gulping, with an all but visible holding of the nose which was considered genteel . . . and so much safer.

Restaurants, even air-cooled perforce in the midst of hot sand, like Palm Springs, or as far from the sea as Oskaloosa in Iowa, can serve oysters without fear these days. Tycoons with inlets in Maryland have their highfalutin mollusks frown for supper that night to a penthouse in Fort Worth, or to a simple log-cabin Away from It All in the Michigan woods, and know that Space and Time and even the development of putrescent bacteria stand still for dollars. Bindlestiffs on a rare bender in Los Angeles (Ell-ay, you say) gulp down three swollen "on the half's" with rot gut whiskey chaser in any of a dozen joints on Main Street, and are more than moderately sure that if they die that night, it won't be from the oysters.

Men's ideas, though, continue to run in the old channels about oysters as well as God and war and women. Even when they know better they insist that months with R in them are all right, but that oysters in June or July or May or August will kill you or make you wish they had. This is wrong, of course, except that all oysters, like all men, are somewhat weaker after they have done their best at reproducing.

Several decades ago, a jolly man wrote:

"Let's sing a song of glory to Themistocles O'Shea
Who ate a dozen oysters on the second
Day of May . . ."

And even the government tells us R's are silly. "A clean fat oyster may be eaten with impunity at any time of the year," the officials say in folder after folder.

Doctors tell us so. "Hell, if it smells good, it's okay," they say, with modifications dictated by their practices and their positions in the Association.

Men who write pamphlets call Hypochlorite process of oyster purification, report on experimental purification of polluted oysters, on commercial scale, by floating them in sea water treated with hyperchloride of calcium. (Public Health Reprint 652.) . . 5 . . T27 . 6/a:652 say so, as do earnest Japanese who deliver papers before the Kokusai Yorei Kabushiki Kaisha called Kaki no banasi, which means Talk on Oysters, with surprisingly un-Oriental bluntness.

They all say that oysters are all right any time as long as they are healthy . . . all, that is, except the oyster-farmers.

The farmers' actions are understandable, after all. Their main interest is in growing as many good crops as they can, and it stands to reason that if a healthy female, round with some twenty million eggs, is takes from the water before she has a chance to birth them, the farmers lose.

May and June and July, and of course August, are the months when the waters are warmest almost everywhere along the coasts, and it is remarkable convenient that oysters can only breed their spawn when the temperature is around seventy degrees and in months with no R's in them. How easy it has been to build a catchy gastronomic rule on the farmers' interest in better crops!

People who have broken the rule and been able to buy oysters in the forbidden months say that they are most delicious then, full and flavorsome. They should be served colder than in winter, and eaten at the far end of a stifling day, in an almost empty chophouse, with a thin cold Alsatian wine to float them down . . . and with them disappear the taste of carbon dioxide and sweaty clerks from the streets outside, so that even in July in a big city seems for a time to be a most beautiful month, and C. Pearl Swallow's ghost well-laid.