At just after 10 this morning, I said goodbye to Brendan and Dingo at Departures drop-off and went inside to the United check-in kiosks to learn that my flight had been canceled, or postponed, they weren’t sure which, due to a mechanical error. The anti-skid device had to be replaced; they were working on it. I waited in a long, shuffling line, was rebooked with a long layover and change of planes in D.C. by an unusually patient airline employee, who clucked and shook her head at my misfortune and did what little she could to help me. My new arrival time in Sacramento was now 6 ½ hours later than scheduled, long past my bedtime.
I got through security with a rare minimum of personal humiliation and discomfort and found an aggressively nondescript airport restaurant. I ordered coffee and a Caesar salad with grilled shrimp and no croutons. The waitress, a plump, tall girl in her mid-20s with a dyed black bob and blue eye shadow, kept breezily calling me “my dear,” which gave me some inward amusement. I ate my plateful of limp, browning (and unwashed, I feared) chopped Romaine, gloppy dressing, and half-grilled shrimp with no joy, to the accompaniment of crashingly histrionic electro-pop.
It’s January. My body and brain and soul are in deep hibernation. I want to stay home in comfortable clothes for the rest of the winter and write, walk, cook, drink wine, watch “Star Trek: Voyager” reruns, and talk to Brendan, who is likewise in hibernation. Last summer, though, I was invited to come to the Sacramento Waldorf School to give a talk and a reading, teach a workshop, and address the high school morning assembly about the writer’s life and my own experiences as a Waldorf student. I accepted; it sounded like fun, and they offered to pay me. But as the day approached, I began to worry that my brain was boiled-turnip winter mush, that I’d get up in front of these various audiences and lose my train of thought, babble, forget what I’d planned to say. This fear wasn’t entirely unfounded — last night I couldn’t remember the words “dental floss,” cycling instead through “thingie thing,” “mouth stuff,” “tooth string,” and “lip gloss.” I am fairly certain I don’t have Alzheimer’s. My brain is in seasonal deep freeze.
Having my flight plan disrupted knocked me sideways, I hoped in a helpful way. Instead of boarding my scheduled flight like a mute, tender, blinking vole just emerged from underground, to arrive on schedule, get a good night’s sleep, and, as rested and clear-headed as possible, deliver my planned talk to the school assembly, I found myself stalled at Logan, thinking about how to explain what the writer’s life is really like, honestly, without either wishful hyperbole or unintentional cynicism. The best idea was no doubt to be as circumspect and positive, within reason, as I’d originally intended to be; no need to delve into the bouts of itchy self-doubt, the social weirdness that can result from day upon day of deep interiority, or the wrenching shock an introvert feels before talking to an audience, especially in January.
Also adding to my concern about my fitness to speak cogently was the fact that I was up all night last night with bad insomnia, remembering with spiky retrospective dread the times in my life, or some of the many, when I let people down or betrayed them, behaved in terrible ways. When I was much younger, I used to lie in bed seething with rage at the humiliations and wrongs that had been perpetrated on me. That was truly nightmarish; I’d infinitely rather feel like an active villain than an aggrieved victim. This way, my debts are many, but no one owes me anything — I’m free from grudges, from passing judgment. This gives me an odd kind of happiness, or maybe it’s evidence of it.
For some reason this preference reminds me of eating briny, plump, raw oysters, the weirdly sexy feeling of something half-alive in the mouth, cold and wet and slippery and potentially dangerous, something risky that should be disgusting, but is pure sensual pleasure. Anthony Bourdain wrote, “The body isn’t a temple. It’s an amusement park.” People who really love food — by which I mean people who love it without being kitchen Nazis, puritanical crackpots, trend-followers, or snobs — tend to be adventurous and free-thinking – predators, not prey. They’re my tribe.
Thinking about oysters lulled me back to sleep, and I awoke with a craving for oyster stew – specifically, for M.F.K. Fisher’s recipe for oyster stew as laid out in her masterpiece, “Consider the Oyster.” It’s the simplest thing imaginable: hot milk, oysters, black pepper and salt, a lump of butter, with homemade oyster crackers floating on top. No doubt I’ve forgotten an ingredient or two, paprika maybe – I’ve never made or eaten it, but, as I sat laboring over my grim Caesar salad, the craving for it resurfaced, stronger than ever. I imagined it as savory and buttery and subtle.
Just as the check arrived, I got a message from someone I knew in college, at Reed, all those decades ago. In it was a recipe for oyster soup.
I went to my new gate to await my much-later flight, only to see that my original flight was just finishing boarding at the next gate. On a sudden whim, I asked the woman at the desk whether I could still get on it. It turned out that I could, which meant I’d fly straight to California instead of detouring to Dulles, thus saving hours.
I boarded the plane, found a row by myself, and, when we were airborne, bought from the food cart a package of “tapas.” Ignoring the crackers, I slowly ate the hummus, olives, red pepper spread, Rondele cheese, and almonds, still dreaming of oysters in hot broth.
Beau wrote: “This soup is about as easy as the day is long to execute and it’s sublime. It’s from the original Trader Vic’s, which had the original Tiki bar. I guess the name is meant to sound Polynesian, though I can’t imagine there’s anything Polynesian about this. It’s our favorite thing around here, now, though. I went oystering in 30 degree weather a couple days ago so we could make it. Kate, this is partial payment for Francis Lam’s scallion ginger sauce, which I made and which is as stellar as billed.”
Put a cup of shucked oysters and a cup of oyster liquor in a pan on medium, bring just to a simmer, poach gently maybe 2 minutes, until they plump up a little and their edges start to curl. Puree in a blender with a cup of chopped steamed spinach.
Bring 2 ½ cups half-and-half just to a simmer over low heat, add puree along with 2 tablespoons of butter, a minced garlic clove, ¾ teaspoon salt, ¼ teaspoon pepper, 1 ½ teaspoons A-1 steak sauce, and a pinch of cayenne. Return just to a simmer.
Mix 2 teaspoons of cornstarch with 2 teaspoons of cold water and stir (gently) to combine, stir into soup, simmer 2 min. more, then pour into four oven-ready soup bowls and set these in a baking dish.
Whip 2/3 cup heavy cream to soft peaks and spread a thickish layer of it on top of each bowl of soup. The cream wants to slide around: put a big dollop in the middle and spread outwards, dragging two large spoons or whatever toward opposite sides.
Broil 5” from heat for about 3 minutes, until tops are browned. Watch carefully: they go from browned with maybe a nice little black spot or two to wicked black really fast.
Kate, please read this book: The Oysters of Locmariaquer
What makes you think I haven’t read it…?
So I built all these bookcases before xmas and yesterday I was finally getting around to populating them and moving books around and suddenly, there, between The Origins of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind and The Writing Life, was Consider the Oyster, which a week earlier, when I’d gone snuffling about for it, I’d swore I had. Turns out I hadn’t, it being my wife’s, but I was right I’d seen it.
Did you ever dig it out or up and see her oyster stew recipe? It’s as you remember, simple, just oysters and butter and cream, salt and pepper and….one more thing. Which I’d never have guessed and which I’m definitely now going to have to try.
Rather gross indeed! My apologies, I was typing in an airport and you know what that does to the concentration. Correction underway and thanks for noticing.
My copy of “Consider the Oyster” is in a box somewhere (new house being renovated); I look forward to unearthing it and learning what that missing ingredient is —
ooh and I just read your transcription of the recipe for Bongo2 and–naughty girl–you’ve made a rather gross error. Steak sauce should be 1.5 *t*–a third of what you have…. xoB