Jack’s oyster tattoo
5 More Ways of Considering the Oysterby Jack Petersen
In 1941, the mother of American food writing, M.F.K. Fisher, published a tiny series of charming, dogmatic essays about her ideal bivalve, called Consider the Oyster. Like a Kumamoto, say, the collection yields its sweetness readily and compactly (96 pages in total), with epigraphs from writers that preceded her but which may as well have been written retroactively for each fragment. And like all west-coast oysters, with their ridged, wavy edges made to scrape the gums of the overzealous, it seems there may be no pristine copy of this book in existence. Almost every article or review I’ve read has included a photograph of the critic’s copy, its pages sun-curled, soiled and craggy, its half-centimeter spine cracked enough times to make a reader briefly consider the workings of infinite divisibility before returning their thoughts to just how good, how unimpeachable Consider the Oyster has remained.
So many of my favorite writers have written about things-as-themselves, the power of the ontological: Roland Barthes’ chapter on I-Love-You in A Lover’s Discourse, the salt in the eye of Clarice Lispector’s roach in The Passion According to G.H., Didion’s hand on a valve of the Hoover Dam in The White Album. An oyster seems like a perfect candidate for this list—briny, hardly-sentient, pure material. Fisher sometimes exalts oysters in this way, but knows that there’s something too divine, too romantic not to turn the oyster into a never-ending springboard of metaphors. As a fan of hers, and of oysters, and of froth, I won’t even try to resist the urge. Outside of ocean filtration, that violence done, oysters are not a necessity, and so how can we not look for ourselves using them as our little, unlikely vessels?
I read M.F.K. Fisher’s Consider the Oyster somewhere at the basin of an eating disorder. A shocking contingent of my most disordered-thinking friends love Fisher’s writing, as well. At best, her language is something of a vice for us; at worst, it’s the guilt without the pleasure. I read mostly on the subway, using my destination as a sort of guaranteed finitude—Spring Street or Franklin Avenue is next; best not to get sucked into the euphoria--or the void--of good food writing. Perhaps it’s that consuming her words is a cleaner alternative to consuming their referents. A guilt-free menu option. We giggle reading her. Camaraderie. Friends of Fisher.
At the bookstore where I work, I love to shelve Fisher’s books. I make a habit of keeping her row tightly-packed, squeezing her one-woman anthology, The Art of Eating, in between slim, unassuming copies of How to Cook a Wolf and The Gastronomical Me, then buying her books at the end of the day as if only to make space. There’s enough there that I’ve done this more than once. Too often, the rest of the food section sends me to dark closets in the store to take shallow breaths, staving off attacks of something or other. Not Mary Francis. For her, I make an exception. A concession. Most of the time, at least. Reading and re-reading the pamphlet-sized book for this essay, I skimmed a few recipes for oyster stew and didn't think too hard about the breadcrumbs on the Rockefellers.
The last time I ate oysters, they came from the fish counter at Union Market on East Houston, unshucked. A man who, though twice my age and devoid of any cooking ability, ended up being unattainable, paid for them. In his apartment, I opened the knife drawer, looking for something blunt and sturdy, unlike any of his delicate cutlery. Breakability, that funny trapping of age and money.
“Do you have a knife I can use to open these?”
He offered--or I found--a spoon he’d lifted from a memorable flight, somewhere, sometime. I jammed it into the hinge of an easy-looking oyster, and the butt end slipped. My thumb scraped the edge of the shell, splitting my nail, making my cuticle bleed. In the living room, the man was lighting a Duraflame in the fireplace. Fall was on its way. We’d need some warmth for the night.
“Shit. You have a screwdriver or something? “
“No. Should I?” Charming, seriously.
“How do you do things? What if you need to fix something?”
“I’ll go buy one,” he said. “Do we have time?”
We did have time, because I was cooking and would make time, and because when he came back it was with a whole set of tools and two bouquets of white lilies decidedly not from a measly bodega, and I’d finished making a mignonette and stopped the bleeding on my hand and petted his mutt which had warmed to me over the past eight or nine such nights when some other fiasco of unpreparedness had left me forgiving and thanking and acting as comfortable as I could. He hugged me from behind as I shucked the oysters with a screwdriver and a kitchen towel. To think I’d ever been the delicate one, he the tough one. My hands turned white with tension, and I really was grateful, and I really was willing.
An old roommate who made a slow and eventually incomplete transition to veganism once told me that many vegans eat tinned oysters for the protein. Sometimes spineless myself, I took personal offense to the correlation between a little meekness and a complete lack of sentience. How far, anyways, is a shell from a backbone, if only in terms of its brittleness? I feel; I feel; I feel a lot! I wanted to say to her. An oyster, too, is soft, but only after being pried open alive. Do we not both spill saline when cracked? One must be thankful an oyster has no voice box. Don’t be fooled: the boys at the world’s raw bars are trained to make it look easy, treating their dull knives like cul-de-canard, masking the effort, tasing off the bluntness as the easiest of memorized movements. Calm psychoanalysts.
When I am unlocked, broken open, we call it a breakdown, or a breakthrough, if we push it far along enough that levity follows. On claim forms I send to my insurance, I not only get the language for my disorders of feeling my antipsychotics, my dosages, but complex code, numbers and punctuation, feeling and its cause transcribed, if only for reimbursement. In this sense, I’m the lucky one. Poor oyster, exception for the vegans, its unlocking relegated to stretched onomatopoeia. Shuck, slurp. How quaint, how salty. I sometimes wish they’d squeal like lobsters.
Every woman I’ve ever dated (two), I’ve taken to an oyster farm. Both times, I drove us north on Highway 1, which at a certain point circles an unromantic part of Northern California’s seaside, Tomales Bay. The first stop is a raw bar in a shack called the Marshall Store, where cool, leather-clad motorcyclists and yuppies in Teslas sit at long tables right off the roadway eating garlic bread and deep-bowled oysters (a beautiful cashier once explained that the shape there had to do with a cinched growing bag turning in the tides). After the Marshall Store, the next destination is a farm and outdoor restaurant called Hog Island, which is famous, if not a little too much so, in California. Most times, it’s packed, and one has to stand in line waiting for a stand-up spot where, if you’re a teenager with a little bit of money saved, your reward for your idling will be a half dozen B+ oysters and none of the other expensive menu items. But when you are trying to impress a girl, or convince yourself of something, and when the valet’s name is Jack and it feels like some kind of sign, it is distinctly worth it. Trust me, please.
The first girl was from New England and grew up shucking and eating all types of molluscs at a raw bar in Martha’s Vineyard. She was a veteran compared to me. The intensity of whatever we went through has the nuance of a gallon of tartar sauce, and so won’t be discussed here. She liked the oysters, but said they were better out east. I don’t know if we were really dating. She was visiting for a week; then we broke up.
The second was serious. Intimate and formative and miraculous, the way things are supposed to be. We drove up and did not feel disgusting kissing after slurping our raw purchases. We were in love despite it all (all, that is, that came afterwards). I have written much about her, and likely will write more in the future. But this is an essay about oysters, so I will only say this: she had not eaten many in her life, but she loved them because of some internet video in which a French seaman said that eating oysters was like kissing the sea. I think she felt romantic about this, as if it meant being close to something mystical and blue. It really is too bad that the ocean is so unknowable, I should have said as we kissed, getting into the car to drive home. But I nodded, and I smiled.
The first time I read Consider the Oyster, what shocked me most was the availability, or more rightly the abundance, of oysters in Fisher’s world. I do not mean that they were so plentiful as to become utilitarian and unspecial. Instead, Fisher talks about being able to dump several dozen of something sublime into a pool of cream, the remembered instances piling up essay after essay until the number of oysters she’s mentioned being used in stew alone outnumber the oysters I’ve eaten during my whole life. The first essay in the book, Love and Death Amongst the Molluscs, traces the unlikely life cycle of an oyster, the same way so many field guides describe cartoonishly the improbability of flower pollination or the survival of giant fig trees in shaded-over jungles.
Looking at an oyster, it may appear too craggy and cement-like to seem miraculous. But Fisher reminds us time and time again that plenty does not equate to unremarkable. The ballast in so many New England roads and fortifications are made up of the durable products of countless rare occurrences. The piled up oyster shells lining the sides of docks are not less significant for their being discarded. In the ethos of oysters, most of life’s inconceivably large menagerie is worthy of intimate study. The metaphor, here, may be too heavy-handed. But so many essays devolve into paeans. This is about oysters, not about love, but the more ways I think of to consider, the more the gap thins.
Jack Petersen is a writer and performer from New York and Berkeley, CA. Their work in fiction, nonfiction, theatre, and dramaturgy often concerns food, gender, nature, and the American West, and their writing can be found in places like The Galvanist and COPY. www.jackpetersen.com