Last weekend I took part in a festival in Sydney called Food & Words. Sadly I had to leave quite soon after my talk (I was first up) so I missed out on hearing many of the other speakers. I was really especially sad to miss Sydney’s John Newton on Eric Rolls, along with Gay Bilson, who I think is hands down the best food writer we have in Australia. I’m hoping both their addresses will be published somewhere soon.
My topic was ‘oysters’. As any visitor here knows, these critters are an abiding love of mine and I found it rather difficult to come up with anything new to say about them. I decided upon a metaphorical approach. For what it’s worth, here’s my piece (I’ve tweaked it in a couple of tiny ways since the weekend).
Despite writing a cookery blog, and having written a book about cooking, I don’t stand here as a ‘food writer’. In Love & Hunger I explain that for me cooking is a kind of portal into thinking about the world, and our culture, and my place in it. It is a form of peaceful meditation and of gentle, restorative retreat from the public world which can often seem so ferocious and bleak. As I’ve written in my book, in some subtle but definite way I feel that cooking connects me to a cycle of life greater and more permanent than my own. It is creativity, consolation, sensuality and solace. In short for me, and I expect many of you, food is not just food.
So what I want to talk about today is the oyster. Not just ‘the oyster’ – that silvery, plump, briny nugget – but the oyster as metaphor, and a kind of life instructor for me. Here are some lessons I have learned from the oyster.
1. Taste life twice
As I’ve written elsewhere, my first response to the taste of an oyster, at the age of about twelve was predictable. I was at a backyard barbecue with my best friend and her parents. I recall just a few impressions of the day: the glare of the sun bouncing off the white weatherboards of the house; a bristly, threadbare lawn. I remember pushing the oyster off its shell and into my mouth. And I remember promptly spitting it out, amid gales of adult laughter, onto the hot pale concrete of the garden path. In that instant I knew that the shocking disgust of that sensation, that taint on my tongue, would never leave me. How on earth could anyone put such a slimy, poisonous, slug-gobbet of a thing in their mouth and claim to enjoy it? It was mystifying.
And it remained a mystery to me for many years, for it was easy for me to avoid oysters until my mid-twenties when I found myself at the table of my then-partner’s parents, invited to help myself from a platter of oysters.
My beau’s father loved oysters. To him they were the height of extravagant pleasure and sophistication, and his offering them to me was a gesture of generosity and warmth. He was inviting me, with this platter of shiny grey slugs, to share his deepest pleasure. Of course I could not refuse. I took three, resisting more on the pretext of restraint. I could feel the rictus smile on my face as I stared down at the plate. There was no getting around it: they must be eaten. All I could do was pray I would not audibly retch as I downed them as quickly as possible.
I swallowed the first one whole, forcing myself not to wince through sheer force of will. Gah! So salty, and so acidic. But something strange was happening: it was not, I was astonished to find, so repellent after all.
The second oyster I ate in two bites, astounded at finding the taste … interesting. By the third, I had detected a glimmer of what I would soon fall in love with about oysters: the briny tang, the softness in the mouth.
I had learned a crucial lesson – one must always taste things twice. I had begun to experience what psychologists call the ‘hedonic reversal’ – the human capacity to appreciate and desire something not simply despite, but because of, the very properties that first repelled one.
The philosopher and writer Carolyn Korsmeyer has termed this ‘the paradox of aversion’. The poetic form of tragedy in art, she says, is another example of this connection between pleasure and repulsion: “Philosophies of art and aesthetics are peppered with examples of what can be termed the paradox of aversion: the attraction to an object that both inspires fear or revulsion and is transformed into something profoundly beautiful.”
2. Pay attention to small things
Part of my learning to appreciate the oyster has been in coming to understand that the real depth of pleasure – in anything – comes not from the what, but from the how and where and when and why. It was not until I tasted a freshly opened oyster lifted from a bed of ice that I could truly begin to love them –as we all know, a freshly shucked oyster complete with its little pool of icy sea-juice is a completely different creature from the pre-opened, dried-out smears of sludge in plastic covered trays from a fish shop. I first learned to shuck oysters from a service station owner on the south coast of NSW, who sold me a hessian bag of live Sydney rocks. He wore a singlet, a pair of Stubbies and a welding glove, and showed me how to open them on the petrol station counter.
I took the sack of dirty rocks back to my husband at our beach campsite, and by some miracle, we managed to open the lot using a bone-handled butter knife and a tea towel wrapped round my hand.
We lay the oysters on a bed of ice on a battered tin tray as Servo Man had instructed, and opened a bottle of wine as the sun set behind the eucalypts. Minutes later my oyster-led hedonic reversal was complete. I understood, finally, what the point of oysters was. This. This luxe creaminess; this icy, briny, metallic zing. The taste of the ocean, slosh of water, the grit of sand, the buffeting of the wind. It was incredible.
My lesson from this is not original, but it is worth restating – context is everything. So often, quality and depth of experience does not arise from money or privilege, but from paying attention to the small things, respecting their simplicity. A fresh oyster, a knife, some ice. How joyous it is that such small things might contain so much.
3: Solitude matters
When I think of oysters growing, I have an impression of separateness in community. Even when close beside another, each oyster remains contained, and closed unto itself.
Although I believe myself to be a sociable, open sort of person I also prize silence and seclusion. And so many of the friends I most value are the hard to get-to-know kind. Prickly, opinionated, introverted, even aloof – I have found that those who prefer solitude to company are often the most rewarding of friends. Like the oyster, they do not yield easily. They often seem enclosed in a similarly abrasive, even stony shell. These people value contemplation and separateness. Like the oyster, they might seem to be alone even in congregation. It takes effort, and patience to know them, but what they offer is of enormous worth.
As Susan Cain, the author of Quiet: The Power of Introverts has said, our modern obsession with connection and availability and openness and extroversion at all times is a painful anathema to the oyster people among us. But, Cain says, “solitude matters”. Introverted citizens are often our deepest thinkers and our most creative and powerful leaders.
From my own observation, the self-containment of the oyster people very often allows the cultivation of deep sensitivity, original ideas and a richness of humour and intelligence – and love – that is all too rare.
So I too think we should quietly celebrate introversion, for it yields riches. In a world of constant chatter and noise and flaunting overshare, perhaps the slow-growing oyster can be a symbol of something else to aspire to – the restorative, restful thoughtfulness of the self-contained.
4: Beauty begets beauty
In an interview in the Paris Review, the novelist Marilynne Robinson said this: “Cultures cherish artists because they are people who can say, Look at that. And it’s not Versailles. It’s a brick wall with a ray of sunlight falling on it.”
Whenever I scrub the mud off a pile of rock oysters into my kitchen sink I think about where that mud has come from. It might be the estuarine waters of Clyde River, or Pambula, or Greenwell Point, or Mimosa Rocks.
Last year my husband and I drove down to Eden, on the far south coast, to watch some whales, and I took a drive out along the dirt roads to the Ben Boyd National Park to see if I could rediscover Servo Man who sold me my first sack of Sydney rocks all those years ago. I didn’t find him … if it wasn’t for my enduring oyster affection I might have invented him and his welding glove completely.
On the drive home we stopped in to buy oysters from a row of sheds on the foreshores of Pambula Lake. The sun was out that day, and the waters were still and blue, and the surrounding bush rang with cicada song. But when I look back at the photographs I took that day I am most touched not by those glistening blues and greens, but by the images of work: the slanting, casual symmetry of the layered oyster racks and trays; the muddy tide mark on a flat-bottomed tinny; the pairs of faded red and grey work gloves pegged to a line beneath the corrugated awning of the sheds. These are pictures of the dignity of labour, and – like Robinson’s brick wall in sunlight – to me they are moving, and vital.
In this way beauty gives rise to beauty. And the stunning clean white of the opened shell, the silky luxuriance of the oyster in the mouth – these thing are inseparable from the muddy gentility of those sheds and boats and the bodies and minds that work them. For some reason this inseparability makes me deeply happy.
I’d like to close with the famous lines from Ernest Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast, because they contain something of the simplicity, the tidal rhythm and the peace of these things I’ve learned through the oyster.
“As I ate the oysters with their strong taste of the sea and their faint metallic taste that the cold white wine washed away, leaving only the sea taste and the succulent texture, and as I drank their cold liquid from each shell and washed it down with the crisp taste of the wine, I lost the empty feeling and began to be happy and to make plans.”