Friday, February 6, 2009


We're going out to dinner tonight---Chris is craving sushi; his favorite place has quite a few other wonderful dishes, so I never mind sitting opposite all that raw fish. He's quite fond of sushi and sashimi, of ceviche and all manner of uncooked seafood, especially oysters.

My children learned to like oysters early, from the time they were just toddlers, and their Grandfather would come back from the coast with several coolers. He'd stride into the house, disheveled from the long ride, and odorous of the several days on a deep-sea fishing trip, and thump down big old croaker-sacks of the briny marvels.

Everybody would set to, working those little oyster-openers like magic, but never leaving them half-shell---there were too many waiting mouths and hungry diners. The meats were scoop/scraped into bowls, with the liquor, and passed on to whoever was holding an eager fork, poised for the spearing, the dip into the cocktail sauce, and a quick slurp of satisfaction.

From somewhere, I had acquired a set of cocktail forks, maybe eight, with slender stems and wee Neptune prongs with out-turned edges, the better to grab those slippery little globules. Those forks were much in demand for spearing the quivery bites, and they always seemed to be co-opted by all the big ole Bubbas of the group, the grownup huntin’ fishin’ yahooin’ bunch who talked loud, laughed louder, and brought an aura of huntin’ camp to wherever they were. They’d disappear a fork into those giant hands, then daintily reach into their bowls with the grace of an Eastern Star Matron eating fruit salad.

Cousin Cookie insisted on seating each oyster atop a "soda cracker" before dabbing the top with a little sauce, then working that cracker neatly between her Revlonned lips like a puzzle piece. She'd start to chew, and the dry cracker would burst into crumbs, some of which would fly like sparks from her too-full mouth. She'd laugh that big smoky laugh, and even more cracker-bits would go floofing down her front, but she never lost that oyster; oh, no.

Uncle Junior liked Loosiana Hot Sauce only, dripping a drop onto the helpless bivalve which flinched from the assault. I was the sauce-maker, and learned who liked it hot, who needed an extra hit of horseradish, who would like a lot of lemon. I'd set out all the different kinds in little bowls, and they always seemed to find their favorite. And I'll bet there wasn't a soul on the place, except maybe ME, who didn't say "Oyst-Yers."

All the while, quick hands were shucking and scraping, also slowly filling one great bowl with the slurpy jiggly creatures for carrying carefully into the kitchen. For there would be FRYING.

All this activity was usually going on out in the backyard, with gatherings of hunting dogs and sometimes a pet duck or two, happy to wait endlessly for a chance at a taste. Inside, the skillets were going, three on the stove---two with fish and one with hushpuppies, and sometimes another bobbing with the meal-covered oysters. The odd pan was a still-silvery old battered Wearever Dutch Oven, the black plastic handles burned-away nubs from all the oven-use. It had served faithfully all their married life, turning out the Sunday pot roast with its luscious oniony gravy, and taking several turns a year at the most magical of all: the creation of the creamy, unforgettable caramel which covered Maw’s own best-in-the-world pound cake.

This pan was also the potato pan, and required several "fryings" to turn out enough fries for the crowd. One did several turns each dinner, filled with Maw’s own recipe for French fries. She cut the potatoes into fry-sized pieces, threw them into cold water, drained them, and then dumped a handful of flour on top. A scatter of salt, pepper, maybe a shake of powdered garlic, a toss and toss with two big spoons, til the flour was wet and clumpy and sticking to the potatoes, and into the sizzling oil. They came out crisp and flavorful and covered with little clinging crispins which were just delightful to crunch.

There's an order to the cooking---fries first, to satisfy nibblers; then the fish, which takes the most time, then the hushpuppies, which come out hot and crisp and fragrant, just as you're ready to sit down. Oysters are last, to keep them at just the right texture and crispness. The fried ones are reminiscent of tangy fried okra, if you’d cut it a little thicker than normal, so the insides stayed just a little soft.

When I think of oysters, I think of that kitchen, hot enough to send you to shuck off your sweater, and redolent of all those frying scents: The sizzle-crisp of the garlic-kissed potatoes, the unmistakable aroma of frying fish, the mealy-brown crumb of the oniony hushpuppies, and the sea-scent of those oysters, all overlaid with the crisp tang of fresh-cut lemons, a dozen of them at a time quartered into the big chipped red enamel bowl.

But mostly I remember gruff, laughing menfolks---from babies to seventies, out in the yard shucking and eating those gallons of fresh-from-the-Gulf oysters, their huge hands tucked around those dainty forks. I’ll bet if I’d looked closely enough, I might have seen several pinkies raised in a gentlemanly gesture to the occasion.


Tonja said...

Yes, I've been right there! Only we were in North Carolina where all the relatives from 'Mama's side' live.
Me? Never could develop a taste for the slimy things. Mom would make oyster stew...I couldn't bear to even smell that. Other seafood is fine with me...but oysters can stay right where they are in their hard shell as far as I am concerned.

Around here, out in the country, it is not unusual to find driveways lines with oyster shells. And as we were cleaning the lot to build our house on, the Creek House, we found a graveyard of old oyster shells way in the back. Several layers as a matter of fact. Someone lost a great place to dispose of their shells when we bought this lot!

racheld said...

For THERE, of course it's quite common. but HERE---in the Heartland, not so.

I still want to go back and see if my eyes were deceiving me when I saw the shells-on-the-house. We were house-hunting, just before we bought this one, and as we slowed to read the house numbers, we scanned several as we passed.

One, we stopped and looked twice, because it was a plain wooden (bungalow, I believe), painted sorta beige, and the entire front was a mosaic of oyster shells, stuck like sequins on a prom dress. They must have been nailed on, because I don't imagine glue would stick very well over paint outdoors.

And they had to have DRILLED them first, for I think pounding a nail right through would have shattered them. There were hundreds of them, line after line across the house, like little flat gray cups attached every few inches, the mother-of-pearl insides facing the street.

I think we WILL go back and have a look someday. That's so bizarre I couldn't have just thought it up.

~~louise~~ said...

What a charming post Rachel. Thank you for passing along these memories at our picnic. It's amazing how picnics recall to mind cherished times.

Cousin Cookie sure did know how to appreciate those oysters, as did one and all!