In Praise of Oysters by George Merrill

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Oysters at Thanksgiving are a tradition on the Shore.

However, before I lived on the Shore it was in1960 that I first ate oysters. It was in New Orleans at Galatoir’s restaurant. I had them on the half shell and then ordered Oysters Rockefeller. I was hooked for life.

Every New Years Day since I prepare Oysters Rockefeller for family and friends. Even those who normally think of oysters as ‘yucky’ will allow that as a Rockefeller, an oyster not only becomes a class act, but an epicurean delight. I believe it’s the bacon and Spice Pariesienne that’s used which lends this dish its unique taste. Who doesn’t like bacon? In any case, preparing them is a ritual act like performing a liturgical rite. Presenting the oysters ceremoniously to guests earns the chef deep reverence. Fresh oysters, dressed with select ingredients and steaming in the rock salt beds on which they have been baked, there’s nothing quite like Oysters Rockefeller.

For me, oysters have been a family affair. The paternal side of my family had been involved in New York and Staten Island’s prolific oyster trade for over 250 years. An oyster 200,000,000 years old would look about the same as those we see today in the Chesapeake Bay or like the one’s my great-grandfather harvested in Raritan Bay. There aren’t many creatures about which we can say that, although the horseshoe crab is a close contender.

Oysters’ ability to survive and not change greatly over time is daunting considering the assaults they’ve suffered from man and beast alike, pollution and starfish. They work at their survival by maintaining a low profile, staying stuck-in-the-mud, having a thick shell and a hard edge. They also have some exotic habits.

If there is a preponderance of females among oysters, some females may simply become males in order to level the playing field – or vice versa. Necessity, the mother of invention, illustrates in this case how mothers can become fathers as required. Actually this same phenomenon frequents our own day as divorce becomes more common and mom winds up being both mother and father. For oysters, however, it’s an issue of DNA and not dereliction of duty that initiates the transformation.

Oysters are comfortable in a transgender world although I imagine courting could be challenging. An amorous oyster making his advances may not get what he bargained for. She might switch leaving him with some soul searching about same sex relationships.

To keep their enemies away, oysters house themselves in the most disreputable looking shells: misshapen, gnarled, uneven and rough to touch. Their shells can inflict a nasty cut. They’re covered with muck. I’ve seen resident barnacles and little red worms burrowing here and there on their shells – enough to put you off. The oyster’s sleight of hand is to appear ugly, but only to the uninitiated. Starfish have been onto them for ages. They’re more interested in an oyster’s inner life. They see beyond appearances.

The ramshackle exterior belies the oyster’s smooth interior living space. Within, the oyster inhabits a miniature palace, a salon, and elegantly glazed and satin smooth. The pearl-like patina of its walls is accented with occasional splashes of blue. The interior forms a seamless sanctuary where the oyster rests safely ensconced as cozily as though it were royalty reclining between pillows of silk.

Oysters are unique in their ability to inspire both revulsion and admiration. Like Quasimodo in the Hunch back of Notre Dame, their malformed bodies fascinate and endear many to them. In the same way, I find oyster shells beautiful. Native Americans used the shells – sans oyster meat – as currency. Making change may have created problems or sales were simply rounded off to the closest shell.

I live on a creek. In a sad annual ritual, in late winter, a waterman walks the shoreline along the low water mark. It’s an odd sight. He walks slowly in search of oysters that tongers may have missed. He tows a small dinghy behind him and when I see him he seems a little like a man walking a dog. He may stop, talk on his cell phone for a few minutes and continue his search. Finding an oyster he picks it up by hand throws it in the dingy and moves on. It’s sad because I take this to mean that oyster populations are diminishing in the Bay. They were once so abundant in New York Harbor during the era of early Dutch settlers, that one resident wrote how oysters were so prolific one could about walk across them on the waters between Governors Island and lower Manhattan,

My admiration for oysters goes far beyond my stomach or my eyes. It’s about holding in my hand the descendant of a prehistoric creature whose family inhabited the earth as life itself was just beginning to sort itself out. They were there shortly after the dawn of being. If oysters had eyes to see and tongues to speak they could tell us about how this marvel we call creation began its long trek. They would be witnesses to how life struggled from the sea to survive on land, to take wings and fly, to develop legs to walk, thumbs to hold, and minds to remember the past and to imagine a future.

If oysters only talked, imagine the stories they could tell us.

Columnist George Merrill is an Episcopal Church priest and pastoral psychotherapist.  A writer and photographer, he’s authored two books on spirituality: Reflections: Psychological and Spiritual Images of the Heart and The Bay of the Mother of God: A Yankee Discovers the Chesapeake Bay. He is a native New Yorker, previously directing counseling services in Hartford, Connecticut, and in Baltimore. George’s essays, some award winning, have appeared in regional magazines and are broadcast twice monthly on Delmarva Public Radio.

 

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