• Posted by Will Blythe on May 25th, 2008, 10:49 AM
    Illustrations by Rachel Mason. Click image for slideshow.

    Illustrations by Rachel Mason. Click image for slideshow.

    One spring when I was ten or eleven, my father went away on business to California. As usual, his departure ushered in an exhilarating period of freedom for our family, like when the tyrant flees the presidential palace in the middle of the night and the people stream into the streets to celebrate, singing and lighting bonfires and dreaming en masse of their new futures.Because my mother was temperamentally unfit for revolution and averse to streaming into the street, our celebrations took place in restaurants. My brothers, my sister, and I crowded into the car, and we drove to Howard Johnson’s or the Rathskeller, elbowing each other and rolling down the window and shouting rude things at passersby that we would never have dared when my father was around. At Howard Johnson’s, we breathed deeply the sweet mingled air of freedom and fried clam strips. We also poured ketchup on our plates with the free hand of an abstract painter. My father did not like ketchup; he said it was low-class. He didn’t care for pizza, either.

    The week my father went to California, my mother took us to the Shrimp Boat, a little seafood restaurant on the edge of Durham that looked like the only surviving member of a chain, forgotten by the home office and left to fend for itself. Here across from the Christian bookstore and the biscuit joint and just down the boulevard from the bowling alley that became a movie theater, the Shrimp Boat seemed fated to outlive every food trend that surrounded its brick and plastic walls—organic, Tex-Mex, nouvelle cuisine. Nothing in America could surpass an anonymous shrimp lowered into bubbling lard.

    That evening, my temporary status as the man of the house moved me to bravery and an unexpected decision. I shouldered my skinny fifth-grade self to the counter to place my order.

    “What do you want, sugar?” the lady at the counter said.

    “Oysters,” I said. “Raw oysters.”

    This caught everyone’s attention, including my mother’s.

    “Are you sure you want raw oysters?” my mother said.

    “Sugar, that means they’re not cooked,” the counter lady said.

    “What, does everyone think I’m stupid?” I said. “I know.”

    “You want to just try one?” the lady asked.

    “No, I want oysters,” I said. “Raw. Lots of them.”

    “His father likes raw oysters,” my mother told the woman.

    “Un huh. I like ’em fried myself,” the lady said.

    This being the Shrimp Boat, with customers arriving about as frequently as an Ice Age, a person could stand at the counter for hours discussing the subtleties of fried food with the employees, who tended to hug the formica top like survivors of a shipwreck clinging to a board in the middle of the ocean.

    But it wasn’t every day an employee got to counsel a boy determined to eat his first raw oyster. There was something irrevocable about eating an uncooked oyster. It was the end of boyhood. Marijuana was next, six packs on the front porch of the Horace Williams house, Kurt Vonnegut novels concealed behind my algebra text as Mr. Samuels scrawled mysterious equations on the blackboard. “You are all going to be famous mathematicians,” he told us in his Punjabi-flavored English. Not me. The days of rebellion were beginning. The oyster and I were coming out of our shells.

    Of the raw oysters, my mother warned: “They’re going to be different.” I think she thought I’d fold, the way I had in taking guitar lessons. But this wasn’t the guitar, this was oysters. Theoretically, you didn’t have to learn how to eat an oyster the way you had to learn how to play “Spanish Study” from the prissy guitar teacher who’d studied at Juilliard and returned to live in his parents’ basement and teach incompetents like me. With an oyster, you just opened your mouth and swallowed. I could do that. I did it everyday.

    “I know they’re different,” I said. “You don’t have to tell me!”

    But I didn’t know.

    The oyster raises deep epistemological questions. How do you know what it is to eat something until you’ve eaten it? In fact, no matter what anyone says, no matter how authoritative the guidebook, no matter how ravishing the description, you can never know anything until you’ve done it yourself. This includes love, sex, and—I assume—dying. I know it includes eating an oyster.

    ***

    My mother and the counterwoman glanced at each other with a sisterly look I’ve since come to know quite well as a look of comradeship in the face of men’s feigned knowledge of the world.

    Short of a miserable encounter with creamed spinach which ended with the spinach concealed under a mountain of mashed potatoes—I could have taught Saddam Hussein a thing or two about hiding weapons!—eating a raw oyster was to be my first act of food bravery. Alligator, snake, ants, and that worm in the bottom of a bottle of mescal were yet to come. In eating an oyster, I was really falling in love not with the oyster itself, but with my own daring.

    For with the oyster itself, that first time anyway, I didn’t taste very much at all. (How like sex!)

    “Here you go, sugar,” the counter lady said, sliding my order across the counter like someone pushing her chips to make a bet in a poker game. She really wanted to see this. The fry cook, an old black man that seemed carved out of silence, left a vat of sizzling grease to watch the proceedings. My brothers and sister, happily settled down to plates of fried shrimp and whiting, stopped eating to watch. And my mother, kindhearted and anxious, stood there, too. There may have been another customer watching, but this being the Shrimp Boat, I kind of doubt it.

    The oysters arrived in a white cardboard box with flaps, like that used for Chinese takeout in the days before aluminum trays and plastic containers. I pried open the flaps and stared into the box, as if looking down a well.

    The oysters had already been shucked. They were tumbled on top of one another so that they appeared a single gray slippery mass of protoplasm.

    “You want a fork, sugar?” the counter lady said, proffering me a white plastic fork. The Shrimp Boat did not believe in delicate little oyster forks.

    I took the fork. “Thanks,” I said. Truly, I did not know exactly what to do. I knew the oysters probably had to be separated and brought to the surface, but I was dealing with a substance that I had never encountered thus far in life. In terms of its glutinousness, I suppose an oyster has something in common with a raw egg yolk, but I did not like raw egg yolks. To this day, I do not like them. I hate the way they stretch and bead and glisten.

    I tilted the box and probed the oysters with the fork. They slid into the corner as if a car had gone around a corner at top speed and smashed all of the occupants together. There was a lot of pressure on me to figure this out because no one else was willing to eat or even move until I had managed to either eat or be eaten by the oyster. If everyone watches you do even the simplest thing, it can become quite complicated. Especially the first time.

    “You might want to try…” my mother started to say.

    “I know what I’m doing,” I said.

    In desperation, I had begun stabbing the oysters. Could eating an oyster be half as hard as getting them out of the box? I finally landed one on the tines of the trembling fork and started to maneuver it from its colleagues by sliding it up the side of the box. Now all I had to do was swallow it.

    “Do you want some cocktail sauce with that?” the lady asked.

    “No, I like them raw,” I said, the oyster teetering on the fork on the interminable transit between the box and my mouth. I didn’t know what cocktail sauce was—it sounded to me as if it were made of martinis—and I had reached the limit of my capacity for exploration. This happened to Columbus, this happened to Vasco de Gama, this had happened to me.

    And so I swallowed the oyster.

    ***

    Though I couldn’t have said it at the time, I can say it now. It was like eating an Abstraction. It was Slippery, so fast down the gullet that it seemed intent on not being known. It was Wet. It was Hard to Bite.

    I couldn’t—or maybe wouldn’t—keep it in my mouth long enough to experience its particular brininess, its oceanic tang. Down it went, like dirty laundry down a chute.

    My brothers and sister smirked and tucked back into their fried shrimp and whiting, heaping mounds glistening with grease. I envied them. Were they impressed by my bravery? Even now, they will not say.

    “How do you like it?” the woman at the counter asked. She was beaming. Even the taciturn cook had broken into a smile before gravely turning back to the fry vats. I had occupied fifteen or so minutes of their long day at the Shrimp Boat and for that I was a hero of the raw and uncooked.

    My mother said, “Your father’s going to very proud of you.”

    “It’s good,” I said, attempting to appear modest. It wasn’t good, it wasn’t bad. It was eaten. And that was the main thing. I had achieved victory merely by eating an oyster. My world swelled with possibility—it was positively humid with it.

    Yet it was only one oyster. I estimated that probably a dozen or so remained. There would come a time in my life when the prospect of a dozen Chincoteagues, Blue Points, or Malpeques waiting to be eaten would fill me with simple happiness. Especially if I had a beer or a glass of Muscadet with which to wash them down.

    Now, however, I was learning that some pleasures require a man to learn how to savor the unpleasant until it somehow changes into its opposite. This is true of drinking coffee, bourbon, and grappa, among other things. As publicly as possible, I swallowed a few more oysters before as discreetly as possible dumping the rest of them into the trash.

    ***

    The story of my oyster eating went out on the phone lines that night. A few days later, our common oppressor had returned from the West Coast and the household settled again into its familiar anxieties. That was when my father stopped me for a chat.

    “I hear you had raw oysters,” he said, ruffling my hair.

    “Yes sir,” I said. I had not yet figured out a strategy of resistance to his authority, other than deceit, and I might just as easily have become my father’s confederate had he been just a little more tolerant of me.

    “How’d you like them?”

    “They were really good,” I said.

    “Your mother doesn’t like them,” he said.

    “Well, I do,” I said. In spite of myself, I was pleased to be enlisted in his little cabal of oyster eaters.

    That we would both eat raw oysters was to be our new common ground. There was so little of that, it seemed, that we made a great deal of what there was for many years to come.

    Will Blythe is the author of To Hate Like This Is to Be Happy Forever and the editor of Why I Write He grew up in North Carolina and lives in New York.

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Comments

  1. March 2nd, 2013 at 11:13 am
    Steve Turtell

    Delightful. I have only one comment, which is my usual reaction to oysters (and often prompts a trip to The Oyster Bar in Grand Central Station): More please!

  2. March 2nd, 2013 at 11:19 am
    Califia Suntree

    I know, there never seem to be enough oysters!

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