handprint of the sea...

March 23rd, 2014, 1am

It was 8.3°C. The breeze was light.

Isn’t it so simple? Here I am, a seafood loving chef from New Orleans, transported to Oregon for my own prodigal son reasons, gladly devouring oysters $1 each during Happy Hour. Simple enough, this particular love affair with the fruits of the sea that I have enjoyed my entire life as a professional chef, right?! Ah yes, and most definitely no, for I do not know the whereabouts of this mollusk, who has been hiding in a crenelated shell in waterways I have not traversed.

My Gulf Coast oysters, crassosetrea virginica by their Latin name, populate the Eastern Seaboard & my backyard bayous of the Gulf Coast. Fat & sassy, and ready for frying, poaching, baking, char-broiling like Drago’s does with their Croatian oystermen heritage brought to the charmed bayous of St. Bernard Parish. These plush, plump, irresistible “ersters” are a mouthful of the sea, salty like a day at the beach, and just as joyous to me when eaten raw by the dozen.

I learned to shuck oysters with a dull knife, a thick glove, and the deft persistence of more than just a flick of the wrist years ago, in my college daze in Athens, GA. I was fast at shucking but cursed like a sailor with Tourette’s to do it, engaged like a Tasmanian devil (the cartoon version, not the cute real critter!) to crack open the rocky shell and neatly separate the quivering bivalve without marring the opalescent flesh that was the object of desire. Thus, with that cursing intact, I always stayed in the kitchen, not the bar, and knocked out 12 dozen in the time it took for me to write this paragraph extemporaneously, so that Athens Wednesday Happy Hour at Sparky’s Seafood Restaurant could begin properly; so that the bartenders, who usually kept up, had a backup in case a gluttonous group of rabble rousers showed up. Which almost inevitably happened, and rarely if the bar was jammed, I’d stop what I was cooking to focus like a madman with a glove, dull knife, trays, and much colorful cursing to bail the krewe outta the weeds shucking oysters that (usually) came from Bayou La Batre in Alabama.

I won a informal but intense oyster shucking contest among the lunch cooks & sous chef in a big, old school New Orleans kitchen on my first job after moving to Nola. I honestly wasn’t that good on that job as I didn’t yet understand the lexicon of Creole flavors & the line mechanics of zero-to-80-mph sauté cooking as well as I did after my subsequent 2 years of gigs cooking in less fancy joints. But that afternoon at Arnaud’s after putting out a big banquet, after breaking veal bones to begin the 3 day process of making demiglace, and watching Norman do the job I coveted of taking potatoes down to zeppelins of impossibly poofy pommes soufflés, we had a bushel of oysters to shuck.

Nobody figured a struggling self-taught cook from Georgia would even know what to do. I put my head down, cursing silently inside my head & doubled the quantity of all them guys. I quit two weeks later, as that moment with my virginica oysters proved a point, and I went to find other jobs that suited my thirst for learning, and in fact that was my last lunch shift job.

Over the next 20 years, I learned the handprint of every dead end road in South Louisiana, birdwatching, and noting oystermen plying their trade where the land crumbles into the advancing tendrils of the sea.

Oysters are not really a wild food. The beds are cultivated by oystermen, who note the islands that have vanished beneath the waves of the ocean, the sneaky sea submerging everything in its implacable saltwater path as it infiltrates Barataria Bay. Aided by melting ice caps a planet away, or oil canals cut willy nilly across these trembling bayou lands so saltwater could nibble the edges of a disappearing world, there go the productive old oyster beds & the villages of wandering seafaring expats who used to live at these edges where the land crumbles into the water. The old maps record this pirate diaspora of places that sank with the slowly astonished disappearing memories that schools & villages populated were where Filipino fishers, exiled French Canadians who became Cajuns, Canary Islanders, Croatian immigrants worked for new homes; and lately way out in eastern Nola where Vietnamese refugees are giving new possibilities to our Creole cuisine.

The problem is dem “ersters” ain’t where dey use ta be, dey backin’ up da bayou, retreating as the sea gnaws on what ain’t dere no mo’ with an endless appetite, drowning places & memories implacably. Take an oldtimer out there with a GPS a decade old, and feel the waves wash over what’s gone…

I love that the Vietnamese families are here, as we both love dark chicory coffee, and we see how our shared French culinary adventures in exotic lands set the tone for a new ‘melting pot’ of gumbo. New Orleans still thinks of the Americans as untrustworthy newcomers, and we prefer our myths in a seafaring parade of Vikings, Basques, Phoenicians, Houma tribes & slaves who dreamed of escaping to become Indians, troubadours & buccaneers, the seekers & the lost who resolutely seek the treasures of a pirate diaspora now settling beneath the waves of Barataria Bay. How did this disappearing act happen? ‘Twas brought by the remorseless tides of history for devouring cheap planks of cypress, for cheap barrels of oil, for a denial of the untethered power of the mighty Mississippi River that created this very delta of trembling lands & pirates. A lost world mutely guarded by delicious oysters stand sentinel.

Today, due to the historical oddity of a snapshot of Time in the blinking of geology’s eye when Bienville landed at a particular bend in the river where my beloved New Orleans was founded, the mighty river disgorges her life-giving sediment like the cloaca of a gigantic snake that would prefer to spread her waters & healing sediment like a blanket of soulful soil across this trembling land so eager not to disappear.

However, to appease the gods of commerce, this snake shits sediment only at the mouth of the river, and a dead zone spreads into the Gulf of Mexico like a forlorn environmental zombie deprived of oxygen but loaded with benzene & the toxic diapers of modern industrial America tumbling down the mouth of the mighty Mississippi River in a diet of fast food, bleached paper mills, and the pig iron of history, racism, and ignorance blooming in a red tide that gives us only this dead zone of zombie water that every living sea creature flees when the zombie of hypoxia bloats under the festering summer sun.

I don’t eat oysters in summer. The zombie waters don’t affect oysters, but as the temperature rises a mollusk thinks about sex, milting & troublemaking in the ways an oyster can LOL firm opalescent flesh gives way to distracted torments. The “don’t eat oysters in months without a R” used to refer to the lack of refrigeration, but secretly, nobody ever wants to think about the sexy life of a mollusk… unless you’ve cheered for MFK Fisher’s acrobatic spat in Consider the Oyster!

Oysters are the new canary in the coal mines whispering warnings from the trembling edges of the sea. Did you know there are no more homegrown, native (crassosetrea sikamea) Kumomoto oysters? Those exquisite, delicate, tiny, and perfectly suited to that specific handprint along the Japanese coast refuse to grow in their wronged waters. Now, the gods of commerce have polluted the actual bay of Kumomoto with such remorseless thoroughness that their namesake jewel of the sea has vanished like a ghost who is ignored in a Japanese folktale, who is ignored at the peril of the rest of the actors in the fable, a fable that doesn’t tell lies.

We cultivate oysters, patiently — as it takes 3-4 years for a re-seeded oyster bed to be grown so that we might nibble on the edges of these aquatic tenants we raise along the crumbling edges of these trembling lands, and somehow, miraculously the culture of oyster cultivation sings joyfully, urging us to remember just what it is that we devour at the sacred edges of the earth. I’ll gladly knock back a couple dozen in the blinking of an eye; if you aren’t careful or quick, I’ll eat yours, too!

I could & should go on. I’m not even going to tackle the blood money & senseless destruction of most of my Louisiana oysters from the BP oil spill & the actions of Gov. Bobby Jindal to flood freshwater from river diversions (that they won’t build to create land, but that they did use to flush falsely now in response to the oil dripping from the Governor & all their oil sucking businessmen Big Spenders who destroy anything for stockholder profits) because you should already know the score of that environmental disaster, without my memo.

But in case you don’t know, oysters require a specific level of brackish salinity, a mixture of salty seawater & freshwater, and those brackish waters lace the bayous with environmental filigree. You can dip a hand and taste the differences. When the oil ran amuck bursting from the bottom of the sea in a torrent, Gov. Jindal opened the spigots of the river, and the oysters drowned.

Can you push back against an ocean and all its tides? Perhaps that’s why oil & freshwater churned together like the dishwashing machine of a gigantic idiot, destroying the finest oysters from Grand Isle. I cannot show you the map of my sorrows more evidently than in the disappearance of these gems from Grand Isle & the knowledge that Kumomoto oysters have been orphaned by the shareholders to the gods of commerce. I would prefer these “dollar dollar bill” titans should be gluttons & gourmands, who shared an appetite for giving a tendril of care for delicate oysters hidden like jewels amidst Shimabara Bay, Japan.

So these words above are a hunger, and a lament, mostly for my crassosetrea virginica oysters. I also highly recommend Mark Kurlansky’s wonderful book about the history of New York City as told through our shared appetite for devouring oysters, The Big Oyster. I also admire the trenchant, hungry research of Rowan Jacobsen as well in whispering the secrets of all 5 species of oysters scattered wherever trembling lands meet the tendrils of the sea.

But wait, Chef, didn’t you say the oyster’s photograph you snapped was a beautiful member of crassosetrea gigas lurking in the pristine waters of the Puget Sound? “Yes, true dat,” I reply, “but how can you marvel over this tender Pacific mollusk which brings a different perfume carried by this specific handprint of the sea to me, and my belly, and my senses imbued with new oyster scents, and a new story of terroir & where home turns out to be where the trembling earth meets the implacable sea…unless you’ve shared a cold beer & tasted with me at least a dozen “ersters” spiritually or literally or in these trembling fragments of a pirate map deciphered, so you can taste the rub of the salty sea upon those living jewels. If you smell the tang of this oceanic perfume, maybe I can count on you to share these spilling secrets & knowledge & poems which you must learn… before you, too, must vanish from your trembling edges of the earth?”

Perhaps later there’ll be a joyous celebration of the art of devouring oysters. A haiku for a single, delicious oyster? Perhaps I’ll even learn to shuck an oyster without cursing…

Anne Marie, Zoe, Kristen and David Wade said thanks.

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Chris DeBarr

Chef who believes in eating the world to save it. Wine & language & sharp knives are the tools of my métier. At heart, I'm a warm & fuzzy Dadaist.

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