Thursday, February 5, 2009

An Ode to the Oyster

Oyster, Ostra.  Genus Ostrea.  Of the House of Ostreidae.  Ostracized?  An academic father might muse aloud about origins, a far-away look in his eyes, before finishing his wine.  There’s a book with a stately title, he would pursue later, licking thumb to better lift the pages, as the younger generation might peruse wikipedia, cautious not to learn too much.  Now, overwhelmingly, we are taught to make our own associations. 

 You are bivalved; it means, you have two shells hinged together.  One cupped, the other flat, like hands holding a garden creature.  Gently opening for the little sister to look inside. 

 You’re rough on the outside, with a soft body inside.  Like a fist, gnarly knuckle clenching its own tender, sweaty palm.  Pick which hand?  Wrench open the surprise. 

 There are ancient critters in your nooks.  Barnacles.  They know things.  From a lifetime of creeping in the inter-tide, among the oysters piled like a junkyard of discarded moons.  Imperfectly-shaped, they weren’t good enough for the sky. 

 There ought to have been a Just So Story about the oyster.  Or folk-tales about a boy named Oyster, discovering the world. 

 What if your slits open when no one’s looking, revealing a delicate, cold ball of eye?  “Did you see that!”  A little boy would always remember the oyster that winked at him.   

 How one could explain to her child, that inside, the oyster is still alive:  “He’s just sleeping, curled up like a baby.  Look, they’re all sleeping together in the oyster bed.”  And later, maybe read her Thumbelina.

 Uncomfortable pieces sometimes get caught inside, chafing against your supple skin, so that you toss and turn all night.  But all that friction can make something precious.  The oyster and the pearl; the princess and the pea.   

 I would like to fall asleep at night to the sound of the oyster.  A rush of ocean in, then a seeping back out, like the tides.


Friends from high school--still friends, no longer in high school--at somebody’s plantation house in rural Luling, Louisiana for the weekend.  Two boys, one straight, one gay; four girls.  We girls rode in the back of Paul’s pick-up truck down to “the pond,” where he parked the truck, spread out towels along the truck-bed and laid down each oyster, one by one.  We shucked dozens out the back and slurped them down, our own private tail-gait.

Each one is a challenge.  We’re giddy, giving it the good-ole college try.  Paul, the only scientist among us, and the historic go-(keg)-getter of the group, who rose early to buy these oysters at the Westwego Fish Market, teaches us how:  “Find the hinge at the rear of the shell, and pry it open.  But you’ve got to wiggle the knife around a little ‘til you hear it pop.”

We’re all quiet, mouths just parted, eyes fixed on the task at hand.  Then the commentary floods out: 

“I don’t understand.  Some are so much easier than others,” says Molly. 

“Some, you really got to wiggle around in there before you can find the right spot,” clarifies Paul.

Scrape, hack, jimmy.

“Oooh! Got ‘im.  I am so good at this,” Betsy delights.  She’s the handy-woman, the sculptor, the chef.

Molly and I are still struggling, riled up by Betsy’s easy success. 

“Some are difficult.  You’ve got to figure each one out.”

 Melissa is the first to make the woman-as-oyster connection.  We spatter out laughter, kids gathered round for a dirty joke on the schoolyard.  Another opens up, and we look differently at its jiggly insides.  This one is layered, like a multi-oyster.  “Ooh, look at those folds,” says Ellis, always ready to make cracks about vaginas. 

“Wiggle, wiggle, wiggle,” goes Betsy, doing a little dance as she works her knife in.

We pause over our work, our fingers a little bloody, hot sauce stinging.

 “Eating these is pretty sustainable, huh?” asks Molly.

“I’m so relieved, I’ve been trying so hard to reduce my carbon footprint,” says Ellis. 

 Shells come off, one after the other.  We’re all grinning, drinking High Lifes in the slightly-chilled air.  Each one of us aware of being in the Southern country, though we’re city kids, happy to get back to our supposed roots.  The pick-up truck, the plantation, inappropriate cracks as we pass “the slave graveyard”; to keep myself quiet, I tell myself to just imagine Chris Rock saying it.  We’re sooo meta, I think.  One of those Southern literary journals would love this scene, captured. Oh, the tension between the Old South and the New South.  Oh, the oyster, cultural nugget unearthed and explicated.  Oh, the nuances. 


One might meditate about these rituals we carry out with a steady hand.  And why they please us so, why we yearn to master them.  Like Rolling a joint, Preparing an espresso, Dicing an avocado.

 “Peel all of your layers off, I want to eat your artichoke heart.”  From Thom Yorke’s solo album.

 Once you’ve emptied, I wonder, what could you hold?  You make a good ashtray. 

 Forget pearls; I want shells to adorn each ear!

 I want to wear you around my neck, my locket of the sea.  I have an oyster fetish.

 I want to wind you open like a music box, and “It’s a small world, after all” would be playing.  I want to shuck you, eat you, and then chuck you back, with a message inside.

 Forget the fleur-de-lis; let the oyster embody what it means. 

 I’ve always thought, if we ever had a baseball team:  the New Orleans Oysters.

 I want a pet oyster, in a tank by my bed.  I wonder if I could pollute the water enough to keep it alive.  You could eat up the entire ocean, like that story about the five Chinese brothers, and one can hold, in his belly, the whole sea. 







1 comment:

Rose said...

Love the ode! Wish i was there, shucking, shucking, shucking. Better to be doing that with oysters than other pointless things. And you get a meal out of it. And apparently a great story.