Friday, December 01, 2006


The other day, upon returning from a trip to the Pacific Northwest, we celebrated the thrill of things chilly. We had left town with one red, paunchy suitcase and we flew home with one red suitcase plus one well-insulated brown cardboard box. The suitcase trundled out first onto the luggage carousel, and then we waited intent, willing our box’s trim corners to be the next to shoulder through the black rubber fronds that concede you your baggage. We both held our breath a little, saying nothing, but dually fixed on the worry that our box might be broken open, its innards melting – or worse, that a savvy someone who lived behind those black rubber fronds was tucking into our frosty treasure chest.

We had bought oysters. Bought them, and ventured to travel with them. Traveling with oysters is the mollusk equivalent of egg-and-spoon racing – an attempt to carry a little of the crash and tumble of West coast waters back to the cement shores of the Delaware river. It is an attempt that seems amiably idiotic, loosely genial, yet it is also perverse in its squandering of location, obscene in its decadence. And it is a practice that is fully catered to by the Pike Place Market in Seattle. The fish stalls there brim with braggadocio – the fishmongers yell and toss huge, beautiful fish across counters to each other, catching the whim and wallet of the tourist. If you linger by a pile of shells, they will whip out a small knife and pry you open a clam or an oyster to taste. All the stalls assure you that they can pack their wares for travel, and some will even deliver the aquatic parcels to you at the airport, fully equipped to withstand up to 48 hours in transit; a Pike Place oyster could safely fly all the way around the world.

This is a curiously cosmopolitan end for an oyster, which otherwise lives its entire life anchored to one spot in the ocean. Is it because each oyster is housed in its own, hinged suitcase that they are suggestive of the portable? Or is it the horizon curve of an oyster’s shell, the rugged mountain terrain of its back, the inner seascape, that makes us want to palm and pocket it, like some primordial GPS device, then produce it glistening and triumphant, just in time for a far flung feast?

But maybe our urge to transport them has less to do with the creatures than with their medium. Raised in ice-cold waters, good only in the frosty months, we serve them on beds of ice - it is to ice that they truly belong. And the history of ice has always been – paradoxically for a substance that is the definition of stop-action – the history of transport. Before the invention of refrigeration, snow and ice were the most audacious cargo of all. Their travel and storage were costly folly for empires, aristocrats and their anxious mimics. Elizabeth David’s Harvest of the Cold Months is a history of the dazzle and excess of ice, and she details the fascination that runs from Medici banquet tables set with ice plates and goblets, to the child compelled to lick an icy pole. She tells the story of a commodity that, across its slow transit, tithed most of itself to summer suns, and of wealthy men who commandeered mountain snowcaps, transporting them to their estates and inverting them into their conical, sunken ice-houses. Nowadays a bag of ice is cheaply bought, but the glint of its melting, wasteful preciousness remains. Wedding planners order up ice statues of swans (a nice touch, given that the swan was the marital interloper between Leda and her husband King Tyndareus), while much-hyped Russian vodkas are served in metropolitan bars made entirely of ice, and ice hotels in Sweden and Canada, which melt away after each season, offer the ultimate getaway for those who prefer their pleasures cold, hard and short-lived.

Catching snowflakes on our tongues for the brief burn of their melting is something we don’t grow out of. So perhaps this is why we flew a pile of oysters across a continent to our friends. And why I eschewed the traditional accompaniment of mignonette in favour of something a little more frigid and crystalline. The tiny dice of shallot in mignonette has often struck me as a disturbingly crunchy interruption to the briny pause of the oyster. I wanted the consummate condiment - an acidic embellishment with no competing texture, something that would slide respectful but brazen into the nakedness of the oyster on the half shell. My solution: granita. Granita is that grainy version of sorbet – inversion, even, since the sorbet-maker is desperate to avoid the ice crystals that distinguish granita. Granita is flavoured ice that you’ve irritated by stirring and scraping or shaving until its shards are revealed. Just as the oyster’s outer garment is all craggy ruffle, the granita has a glorious rasp that bites, just before it melts luxuriously to an intensely flavoured liquid. I made three of them: a bright green cucumber lemon affair, a femme fatale made from white balsamic, and a chile, lime and mint ice spiked with a little fish sauce. Our oysters were of three kinds too: Bluepoints, Kumamoto and a larger, humbler oyster that didn’t even have a name. These last worried me as I opened them – they had hardly any liquor – but when we sat down to dine, they pleased us perfectly well. The Bluepoints and Kumamotos were sweet and sleek, the spoons of granita subsiding into their mix of flesh and liquid.

It has always struck me that the oyster is a creature of diversity – made up of the most pearlescent whites, but frilled with carbon black, some shadowed by dilutions of blue and green. It is muscle and organ and gill and we eat it all. Like Virginia Woolf’s Orlando, the oyster may change sex one or more times across its lifespan, occupying its sex distinctly at any given moment, but without commitment. When the Elizabethan Orlando spots the Muscovite who will break his heart, she is dressed in a costume that “disguises the sex,” made of “oyster-coloured velvet.” The two indeterminate young aristocrats are skating over the frozen Thames, at a Frost Fair. The scene beneath the ice forms a narrative of evolutionary motion baffled by stasis: “So clear indeed was it that there could be seen, congealed at a depth of several feet, here a porpoise, there a flounder. Shoals of eels lay motionless in a trance, but whether their state was one of death or merely of suspended animation which the warmth would revive puzzled the philosophers.” The difference between boy and girl, life and death, the things we think have so much meaning – are suspended here, as immortal androgynes skate the surface of the frozen deep wrapped in oyster-coloured silks. Even age, and the fruits of the Fall, and filthy commerce, are immobilised to make possible Orlando and his lover’s gliding passage. “Near London Bridge, where the river had frozen to a depth of some twenty fathoms, a wrecked wherry boat was plainly visible, lying on the bed of the river where it had sunk last autumn, overladen with apples. The old bumboat woman, who was carrying her fruit to market on the Surrey side, sat there in her plaids and farthingales with her lap full of apples for all the world as if she were about to serve a customer, though a certain blueness about the lips hinted the truth.”

Ice is brutal, numbing, but its suspensions provide clarity. It kills and it preserves. It slows time down. I am more like an old bumboat woman with my skirts full of Eve’s fruit than I am like either the immortal Orlando or the timeless oyster. But I once swam off the coast of the Isle of Mull on a bitter January day. I swam and gasped until my limbs evaporated and I was nothing more than a beating, slowing heart. I felt the thump of myself. My silts and valves. The oyster has filtered freezing waters its whole life, existing in the frozen interstices of time and sex, anchored in the huge swell of the sea. As Eleanor Clark puts it in The Oysters of Locmariaquer, “there is a shock of freshness to it and intimations of the ages of man, some piercing intuition of the sea and all its weeds and breezes.”

The oyster has also sifted the tides of fashion and fortune, its own status shifting – sometimes the emblem of luxury and extravagance, it has also been the despised food of the workingman. Many have hailed it as the misshapen emblem of misery and seclusion: Charles Dickens makes the bivalve the analogue of that Christmas-party-pooper Ebenezer Scrooge who is, he tells us, as “Secret and solitary and self-contained as an oyster.” But Scrooge is our measure of change, our lesson in how the hardest heart can be melted – even if only by terror. Like Orlando, the tight oyster Scrooge catches hold of immortality: 'I will live in the Past, the Present, and the Future!' M.F.K.Fisher, in Consider the Oyster, pities the beast she biographies: “Life is hard, we say. An oyster’s life is worse. She lives motionless, soundless, her own cold ugly shape her only dissipation . . .” This oysterly inertia, this liquid dissipation in ossified ugliness, makes people uneasy. It is eerie, that quiver beneath the silent shell that reminds us of stubborn, shameful pleasure-taking. When Shakespeare sees the world in an oyster, it is the thief Pistol who speaks the line, threatening to take what he will: "Why, then the world's mine oyster, / Which I with sword will open." Pistol’s violence and vengeance remind us that the oyster is eaten alive.

But surely the most complete dissipation requires frolicking with that which is ugly and brutal? True bucolic pleasures incorporate the grotesque: they do not spurn it. This is why we see the world in an oyster, and serve it at our feasts. It is in the vile body that we find our revel, and in the sacrifice of it that we face ourselves. The oyster may be a dubious food, but we are a dubious animal and a relish for the oyster is a savouring of the elemental. Its minerality carries the trace of rock and sand upon which we precariously build our lives, and its salinity is of the seas we came from. A friend brought, to our oyster feast, icy Chablis pressed from grapes grown in French vineyards nourished by chalky soil made from age-old oyster shells. In that wine and those oysters, brought together across seasonal and geological stretches of time, and across continental and oceanic measures of distance, we tasted the friable press of ice-ages and their thaws, the pull of moons and tides, and the monstrous shudder of life. And we hoped that we will not – while suspecting that we will – come to say with Oscar Wilde, “the world was my oyster, but I used the wrong fork.”


Chile, Lime and Mint Granita
Recipe from Le Colonial restaurant in San Francisco

2 cups water
2 mint sprigs
1/2 cup fresh lime juice
1/4 cup sugar
1/4 cup Asian fish sauce
1 teaspoon chile-garlic sauce (sambal olek)

Bring the water to a boil in a small pot and add the mint. Reduce heat and simmer until the liquid reduces by half. Remove from heat and add the lime juice, sugar and fish sauce. Stir the mixture until the sugar dissolves. Discard the mint sprigs. Add the chile-garlic sauce and mix well.

Transfer the mixture to a stainless-steel or glass pan and place in the freezer. Whisk the mixture every 10 to 20 minutes and continue to freeze until the mixture is consistency of shaved ice, about 2 hours. Break up crystals and whisk before serving.

Cucumber Lemon Granita

2 large English cucumbers, peeled and seeded
1/4 cup water
3 teaspoons aquavit or Hendrick’s Gin
3 teaspoons fresh lemon juice
1/8 teaspoon salt

Coarsely chop cucumbers and purée in a blender with remaining ingredients in 2 batches until smooth. Taste and adjust flavours to your liking. Pour into an 8- to 9-inch baking pan.
Freeze, stirring and crushing lumps with a fork every hour, until evenly frozen, about 2-3 hours total. Scrape with a fork to lighten texture, crushing any lumps.
Serve immediately or freeze, covered, up to 3 days (rescrape to lighten texture again if necessary).

White Balsamic Granita

Dilute white balsamic by half with water and add a couple of drops of lemon juice. Freeze as above.


Blogger Miss Souris said...

Beautiful writing.
Also, beeing able to actualy EAT an oyster is one of my life goals so... :)

6:06 am  
Anonymous Scaparelli said...

As the air begins to freeze around us, only you, Syllabub, have the wit to turn our minds to the saline, semisexual beauty of the oyster. Yes, I will have my DOZEN with some of your lovely granitas -- while I relish your Woolf-inspired words,
"as immortal androgynes skate the surface of the frozen deep wrapped in oyster-coloured silks."

7:08 am  
Blogger Laurel said...

Hurrah! Another Syllabub posting! Your gorgeous paean to ice -- and to the oyster who glorifies it -- reminds me of all of the delicious things of January when the icy air challenges each inch of exposed skin to a duel, and of the crisp, appley/briny taste of children's winter cheeks when you kiss them.... I've been uncertain of oysters till now, but you give me courage. I particularly like the idea of the chili-lime-mint granita.

12:48 pm  
Anonymous Aubergine said...

Syllabub, you outdo yourself! I loved this meditative, poetic entry, especially after such a dry spell. I thought you'd appreciate the fact that Cole Porter got a lot of the same ideas about oyster travel into doggerel! Check out these 1929 lyrics:


Down by the sea lived a lonesome oyster,
Ev'ry day getting sadder and moister.
He found his home life awf'lly wet,
And longed to travel with the upper set.
Poor little oyster.

Fate was kind to that oyster we know,
When one day the chef from the Park Casino
Saw that oyster lying there,
And said "I'll put you on my bill of fare."
Lucky little oyster.

See him on his silver platter,
Watching the queens of fashion chatter.
Hearing the wives of millionaires
Discuss their marriages and their love affairs.
Thrilled little oyster.
See that bivalve social climber
Feeding the rich Mrs. Hoggenheimer,
Think of his joy as he gaily glides
Down to the middle of her gilded insides.
Proud little oyster.

After lunch Mrs. H. complains,
And says to her hostess, "I've got such pains.
I came to town on my yacht today,
But I think I'd better hurray back to Oyster Bay."
Scared little oyster.

Off they go thru the troubled tide,
The yacht rolling madly from side to side.
They're tossed about 'til that fine young oyster
Finds that it's time he should quit his cloister,
Up comes the oyster.

Back once more where he started from,
He murmured, "I haven't a single qualm,
For I've had a taste of society,
And society has had a taste of me."
Wise little oyster.

12:55 pm  
Blogger future poet said...

Wow, that was worth waiting for. And I'm a vegan.

11:13 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

As future post said, that was worth waiting for. (But please don't make us wait so long next time!)

Memories of oysters Christmas morning,
without the granita --- I must try those,
especially the chili mint one --- their bons voyages eased by chilled bubbles... I must introduce my little ones to this tradition soon.... well, perhaps not the bubbles. Not yet. But the oysters!

Thanks again

8:27 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Wow! I might be the hardest to convince: slight allergy to shellfish; wishful-vegetarian; no desire whatever to eat anything with a shell. But you so brilliantly open the reader's mind to what it means to be human I am once again filled with awe at the fact of our need to take life in order to live (I include here the determined and committed life of the carrot) and join you in celebrating oysterdom as (is this me speaking?) food. Your meditation on ice is wonderful, and your ability to skate among the literati, taking your reader along like a graceful partner, is awesome. I love you, Syllabub!

5:44 pm  
Blogger nolo said...

How beautiful. This is why I check back.

9:00 pm  
Blogger Syllabub said...

Thanks to all respondents: vegan poets, crabby pinkos, miss mouses, aubergines, pats, laurels, anonymous and scaparelli herself. I am delighted that you are my readers.
To Neil, whose children are clearly very lucky: full steam ahead with oyster introduction, and why not some bubbles too? I was raised drinking wine-with-water (as many Europeans are) and I'm fine. Almost. Well, maybe not. But still.

10:35 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I too was raised in England (but went to
Fen Bog Poly rather than the other place)
and grew up on wine with water (at first,
bad Valpollicelli, Bulls Blood and Blue Nun, but it got better when I grew older and my parents learned more about wine)
and we will probably introduce them to bubbly at some point... but as yet, they
are only 2 and 4 --- and if the 2 year old
gets some the 4 year old will definitely want some too:-)
I'm really enjoying introducing them to good food --- they both love baking bread with daddy, and sometimes enjoy special foods (smoked salmon in a white wine/cream/dill reduction over pasta for Christmas eve:-)


10:51 am  
Blogger Syllabub said...

Ah, Blue Nun. I remember her well.

11:15 am  
Blogger Urban Forager said...

So very lovely, and perhaps it illuminates the enthusiasm of my grandmother, who lived her whole life in a landlocked state, for oysters. She loved a number of "dubious" foods: brains and eggs, pickled pigs' knuckles, okra prepared to maximize its sliminess, and poke salet, which is poisonous if harvested too late in the season. I have sometimes thought of these preferences as simply perverse, intended to shock. But she was, at heart, never far removed from the farm where she grew up, and as you say, "True bucolic pleasures incorporate the grotesque: they do not spurn it."

I love the idea of a granita served with oysters (although I don't hold with the notion of white balsamic vinegar), but it might be a challenge for me. I was once called upon to clean 56 lbs. of not-entirely-thawed calimari. As you may know, the guts of a squid, once the cartilage is removed, are almost precisely the color and consistency of snot. I was not so bothered by this, but when I got to the critters near the centers of the boxes, where they were coldest, the ice crystals in the blobs of innards nearly sent me over the edge, repeatedly activating my gag reflex. Would the granita call this experience too forcefully to mind? I would love to test the proposition! In pursuit of pleasure, one soldiers on.

11:50 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Just wanted to make your mouth water --- I spent the morning making sausage rolls for a party this afternoon: in the little town in which we live we have a Christmas parade every year, and our neighbour (a professor of English whose degree is from some liberal arts institution in the Philadelphia region) has a party for it every year --- sausage rolls are for me the epitome of cocktail food for a party,
or they would be if you could get them over here! And they are so easy too! (especially if, as I do, you forgo making your own puff pastry, and use the pepperidge farm brand, and buy local sausage instead of trying to grind and blend your own. )

There is definitely something christmassy about puff pastry and meat!


5:54 pm  
Blogger angel said...

Absolutely gorgeous!

11:38 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

A merry christmas to you and yours,
and warm wishes for a wonderful new
year. Thanks *so* much for the gift
of words over the past few months --
they have been a delight!


10:42 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Don't forget the Walrus and the Carpenter -

"The time has come," the Walrus said,

"To talk of many things:
Of shoes—and ships—and sealing-wax—
Of cabbages—and kings—
And why the sea is boiling hot—
And whether pigs have wings."

Poor little oysters. If I recall correctly, they were eaten with a mustard sauce.

8:50 am  
Blogger Syllabub said...

Many thanks to "Anonymous" for reminding me of the mustardy fate of Lewis Carroll's oysters and to Neil for the season's greetings - Happy Holidays to everyone!

10:10 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Interesting post. I wrote my senior thesis, in fact, about Orlando and the idea of stasis/becoming, and quoted that very same section you chose in it. I like what you did with it, thoug at first it was almost like when one sees a professor who gave you a 3.5 on a paper presenting your same ideas, or those you know belong to a colleage, at a conference later on, which has been much of my grad school experience, but maybe it's just the German lit. people who do that anymore.

2:32 am  

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