What Is Oyster Literature?
Following a trail of shells and the legacy of M.F.K. Fisher.
It’s not the basic facts of oysters that interest me. These are easy enough to find and gather, and there are many excellent books on the subject: Rowan Jacobsen’s The Essential Oyster: A Salty Appreciation of Taste and Temptation and A Geography of Oysters: The Connoisseur’s Guide to Oyster Eating in North America; Mark Kurlansky’s The Big Oyster: History on the Half Shell; and many, many more.
The feeling of oysters—the literature of them, that’s what I like. When I travel and people hear that I’m a vegetarian, a cold shiver seems to go down their spines as they worry over what I will eat in France, in Spain, in Scotland (no worries in Italy—blessed Italia). “But I eat oysters,” I’ll add after the stunned pause, and their worries will dissipate. Oysters—not so fancy as caviar, yet still with an aura of occasion. Without meat, we’re without occasion, is the subtext of the omnivores’ concern. These bivalves calm that worry, with the added bonus of providing the omnivores an excuse to slurp some up as well.
I learned to shuck oysters in Scotland. I like to say that, because that simple sentence sounds so much more interesting than explaining the vagaries and banalities of a press trip. My knife was quicker than everyone else’s in the kitchen of the hotel where we were staying—quite a quaint place, a favored retreat of Prince Charles—which I chalked up to experience with a knife, chiefly, as well as the more spiritual reason that I am a New Yorker, a Long Islander: a person of oysters, the land where they once fed the working-class populace of the mid-19th century, their abundance making them cheap, until the beds of the New York Harbor were exhausted. At home, in Patchogue, I eat oysters of the Peconic Bay.
Yet I ate perhaps the coldest, briniest oysters of my life in San Sebastían, in a txoko, where a wine company had them specially brought over from northern France for me. I was encouraged to eat more than the others, on account of my vegetarianism; my mom encourages me to eat some of her share whenever I’m home, as I don’t get to eat oysters often in San Juan. So many nice reasons I have to be gluttonous!
On our honeymoon in Montréal, I ordered six huîtres for myself at Denise (while I’d like my husband to share this pleasure with me, it’s also delightful that he does not—again, the reasons for gluttony). The beverage director noticed my oyster tattoo, the outline of a Blue Point on my outer right forearm, and showed me hers, which was smaller with thicker lines but similar in style. She was from Normandy, and perhaps the best oysters of my life were the ones on which she was reared—the oysters of Eleanor Clark’s The Oysters of Locmariaquer.
I think I like to eat oysters, to be near where they grow, to be around oyster people because they are always such a specific delight yet always remind me of home. They can be fancy, sure, but they put up a good fight. In Portland, Maine, I remember nearly tripping on my sprint to a curbside oyster cart.
Oysters manifest a rare show of balance between the pleasure they give and the ecology they sustain, at least now that we’ve learned to do so. My education on the subject has been piecemeal, and I always regret not having a specific notebook for tasting memories, but I’m never going to be that kind of food writer. I’ll just remember where the coldest, briniest oysters I ever ate were from, and where I was, and eventually that will lead me to understand that those are widely considered the best oysters in the world. It will be a years-long process of traversing oceans, following my gut toward the next plate of shells. Feelings, not facts. Literature, not history.
One can’t speak of oyster literature (or the literature of oysters) without discussing M.F.K. Fisher’s Consider the Oyster, the masterwork of the genre originally published in 1941. (That the “K” in her name is the same “K” as in mine is something I’m constantly forgetting and remembering.) Of course, there’s also Anthony Bourdain who comes to mind, describing his first oyster tasted on a fisherman’s boat in France. (France, France, France—this is why I write about Long Island!)
My copy of Consider the Oyster, an essay collection, is stuffed inside a fat anthology of Fisher’s work called The Art of Eating put out by Vintage in 1976 with an “appreciation” by James Beard, who bemoans that America produces “quantities of cookbook writers” but few with her “personality or originality.” I love its very ’70s illustrations (a piece of which I have tattooed above my oyster) and the blue ballpoint pen markings of its prior owner, who also liked to draw asterisks and couldn’t master a straight line. I can only tell my notes from theirs by the mark of the ink, as I prefer a black felt-tip. A pencil marking on its first page tells me I spent $10 on it, likely at Huntington’s now-closed Book Revue, where I would’ve placed it amid a tall pile of other used books.
The first essay, “Love and Death Among the Molluscs,” starts with a first line I place on the iconic level of Mrs. Dalloway: “An oyster leads a dreadful but exciting life.” From there, it’s off to the races with her collected recipes, insights, and stories of a man who died of a bad oyster—the saddest part of that being that he must’ve known once he put it in his mouth that it was going to cause him pain, though who ever knows just how much.
In “A Lusty Bit of Nourishment,” she writes delightedly,
If a man cared, and knew all the rules, he would be really frightened to go into a decent oyster-bar and submit his knowledge to the cold eyes of the counter-man and all the local addicts. He would be so haunted by what was correct in that certain neighborhood and how to hold the shell and whether lemon juice should be used and so on that he would probably go instead to a corner drug store and order a double chocolate banana-split.
Fortunately, though, almost everybody who goes into an oyster-bar or even eats in a restaurant is so pleased with the oysters themselves that he eats them in his own fashion without giving a toot or a tinkle about what other people think.
Yes! She’s funny, this Mary Frances; she has balls; she sees how people think. Which is why I’m always so bored by people who think she’s precious—are they recounting their own readings or repeating a well-trodden tale? There’s darkness afoot everywhere, which Ruby Tandoh notes in her 2018 piece “M.F.K. Fisher and the Art of the Culinary Selfie.” Tandoh, though, also describes Fisher as “both incredible and deeply flawed,” to which I say: Who isn’t? Though I recognize this as a tick of internet writing at the time, having to acknowledge that most of the people who had the privilege to write in the last century usually came from money and thus were a bit out of touch.
That was the point of the meaty and manly Josh Ozersky’s “Consider the Food Writer,” published in 2014, about how Fisher ruined food writing by creating its conventions (and by being a woman). I agree, revisiting the piece now after reading it so long ago, that too much goes unseen and unsaid in lifestyle food media, but it’s certainly no longer because people are reading too much Fisher. Bourdain goes unmentioned in his piece, inarguably a far more influential food force over the last two decades, likely because he had the good fortune of being a man who successfully transcended his middle-class upbringing (let’s not forget how that first food piece ended up in The New Yorker to begin with—does that sully the whole of his output?). Both loved an oyster. Both changed how we write about and interact with food.
Anyway. I think we should all keep writing about oysters, even if that means constantly going back to Fisher’s book. This is a self-serving idea, of course. I want to keep writing about them, and I want to keep reading about them. Tell me about the most memorable oysters of your life! Tell me whether you prefer them raw, like me, or cooked. Consider the Oyster still makes me laugh, still makes me recall various notes of seawater splashing onto my tongue. We need more oyster literature, not less. (More food writing, not less.) Reclaim the oyster.
This Friday’s From the Kitchen for paid subscribers will include a trio of salad dressings—my favorites. After that, I’m doing a trio of sauces for tofu (and more). See the recipe index for all past recipes available to paid subscribers.
I was on NPR’s “All Things Considered” for a Memorial Day ode to vegan ice cream. I was also on “Hot Take,” a climate podcast, talking about portrayals of veganism in pop culture.
I read Revenge of the Scapegoat by Caren Beilin in one fell swoop on a plane ride back from New York. I’ve not been reading much because I’m waiting on a new eyeglass prescription and it is causing me agita.
A lot of tofu, as I excitedly bought every packet of Hodo they had at our local natural grocer. I’ll tell you about it in a forthcoming From the Kitchen!
My first oyster was at Connie & Ted's in West Hollywood. I had been wanting to try them, but I only ever saw them offered a dozen at a time. What if I didn't like them? Connie & Ted's sold them one off, so I got one. I was there with my brother. It was his birthday and I took him there for fried clams. (Later at another restaurant I ordered steamed clams and discovered that he liked the "fried" more than the "clams"). I tried one, and loved it. I ordered another. As I ate, my brother asked the waiter, "When was that oyster last alive?" The waiter answered, "Right up until your brother bit it!" My delight was only matched by his horror. I now eat oysters every time they are on the menu. It is as you said, "it’s like something in the depths of my animal humanity needs to eat raw things out of shells."
Ah, arsters! Where I grew up in Southern Maryland, you had a crab guy and an oyster guy both speaking of bushels. The Chesapeake Bay’s oysters are usually craggy which make them easier to hold & shuck; the brackish waters mean that they can taste different from creek to creek. One of the delights of my life is that my little brother has become “the oyster guy” here in Baltimore, as he regularly brings up oysters to sell and is the backyard shucker of choice for rowhome shindigs.