A Love Letter to Oysters

A Love Letter to Oysters

This post is a love letter to oysters. But you should just read it to yourself. Oysters have mouths but no ears; they won’t hear a thing.

We hosted an oyster roast over the weekend, one in a long string of oyster roasts I’ve hosted, attended, or crashed. Once, I hovered over a table of steaming bivalves and did not know a single person there. I don’t know whose house it was; I’d just heard there was a big roast, invited myself, and brought a knife. Those oysters were delicious.

They’ve all been delicious. I like tiny ones, like last year when a friend emptied out his beds in the sound near us, bringing the last few bushels of the season – singles with deep cups – each a sweet bite of the beach. I like big juicy ones, too, ones as long as my middle finger (or my husband’s pinky – I have tiny hands). I stab them with an oyster knife to let the excess saltwater drain then dip them in cocktail sauce (extra horseradish, please), dangling them shamelessly over my mouth before letting them slide down in one gulp. My favorites, though, are mid-sized, midway done, jiggly but not oozing, firm but not chewy. I’ll eat those without any cocktail sauce, butter, hot vinegar, hot sauce, or whatever other abomination you’re putting on yours, thank you. And with dark beer – it’s winter, after all.

We eat oysters in the “R” months around here, both because there’s less chance of contamination or bacterial growth in cooler (and less touristy) waters, and because the randy little bivalves mate in the warmer months. They turn gamey when they mate, lean and focused on the continuation of generations, releasing seed and eggs into the water. The resultant babies, or “spat,” settle on hard surfaces (preferably other oysters), and everyone plumps up for my winter eating pleasure.

Oysters don’t appeal to everyone. They’re filter-feeders that eat the plankton (tiny floating critters) in the water. I suppose, during mating season, they eat their own babies. They clean the water as they filter – they can clean around a gallon of water an hour, which is not what one generally wants out of their food. No one’s trying to chew my humidifier filter.

But they’ll line up and pay good money for a taste of an oyster’s salty, unique merroir. That’s a real word, and it’s fun to say, if fancy-sounding for a snotty little ocean scrubber. Merroir is the flavor of the sea; it changes depending on the oyster’s source. Oysters from Stump Sound (just north of Wilmington, NC) are much saltier than Rappahannock river oysters (in the Northern Neck of Virginia), for example. If you suck down a VA river oyster after having been raised on NC salty sounders, you might accidentally “act ugly.” It’s not polite to insult someone else’s oysters, but damn – what is there to taste in Virginia?

Now that’s Crassostrea virginica, the Eastern oyster, native to the southeast coast of the US. Sure, it has “virginica” in the name, but Virginia’s doing it wrong. I guess the pilgrims once guzzled down some Virginia bags of bacteria, and the name stuck. But once they tried NC oysters, they knew they’d tasted saline superiority. They’ve been jealous ever since.

They’re not the only species of oyster. There are five species harvested commercially worldwide and hundreds more out there. I wish I could say that I’ve tasted them all, or even one more than Crassotrea shouldbecarolina, but no, I’ve only sampled my own geographically limited merroir. If you have an oyster to send me, I’ll eat it.

I learned a lot about oysters from reading A Geography of Oysters by Rowan Jacobsen (also, I cheated – I was a marine science teacher). Rowan ate all the oyster species, lucky fella. Before reading his book, I was content with my gnarly gray goobers. Now, I will spend my life wondering what I could be missing.

I was missing their potential for ecological art, that’s for sure, but others found it. In the North River of Carteret County, Carolyn Henne created a 3D art installation from a special material made to grow oysters; you can see it from the air or a boat. She colored and sculpted the material to create an octopus and several large sea stars. As oysters grow, the structures will be altered – like those art-that-interacts-with-its-environment projects you learned about during “Intro to Art” class.

Oysters are surprisingly hard to grow – they need just the right salinity, intertidal range, wave action, water quality, temperatures, and then, if you want to eat them, about two years of waiting time. A storm or any disruption in their needs can ruin the harvest – not that harvesting them is easy. They’re sharp, muddy, heavy, and cemented to each other and their substrate.

Still, people do it anyways, because oysters sell ($60-100/bushel – about 100 oysters depending on size). Oysters are good for water quality, they protect shorelines, and they create habitat. Oysters are sexy. Living shorelines, oyster farming, and name-brand oysters are trending. Plus, they’re supposed to make you feel sexy. But that could be the beer talking.

If you want to host a roast, invite whoever you want, but jot down how many oysters they will eat. There’s a big difference in preparing for a 1/2-busheler like myself versus a “maybe 6 or so” saltine sampler. Get your oysters, ice them, keep the raccoons and possums out, then spray them off with the hose before cooking, so your hands and mouth don’t get so muddy.

You have several options. One option is not to cook at all and crack those calcified fortresses open with sheer willpower (and maybe throwing them onto a hard surface; I think it disorients them and makes them easier to crack. Also, it’s fun.). They will be cold and extra snotty, but you won’t lose any flavor or texture to the fire.

If you’re just feeding a few pigeons, throw them in a deep pan (not your favorite pan) in the oven with a half-inch of water or so in the bottom. Cook them until they open, adding water if it dries out and turning on the exhaust fan.

Don’t want them in the house? Do the same thing but on the grill. Benefit: you can put wet oyster rags on the grill top to dry while they cook.

Because you need rags, a big pile of cut-up old towels, to lay across one hand while the other hand wields the knife. The rags will protect you (from the oyster but more importantly from your own knife), catch some of the leftover marsh muck, and allow you to handle the shells hot off the grill. If you wait any longer, I’ll eat them all first.

More people? Get a steam pot. We got a 53qt one this time; your ability to lift it while full of oysters is your limiting factor here. Rags can also dry on the pot lid.

About a hundred people? Invite me. Hell, might as well; I’ll show up anyways.

You need a pit (and a keg). Stack cinder blocks to make a rectangle or square, leaving spaces between them for airflow. It doesn’t have to be very high.

Steal a large metal street sign or wait for a hurricane to knock one down. Have a teenager stab holes in it with his/her unfocused rage. Put your oysters on that, over a low fire in the pit (again, wait for a hurricane for firewood). Throw a few wet burlap sacks over the oysters (you can get these at the feed store) until they open

Pour out your oysters onto a table, break out the knives (I’ll bring my own), and dig in.

They may have better oysters in France. But at my house last weekend, I got tiny plump pea crabs in at least one out of every ten I opened. I love their quick crunch. I got three half-inch long cuts on my right hand, four dark craft beers, a half-bushel of friends, and I got to laugh loudly over a table full of Carolina’s finest. Lucky gal.

Percolating Poetry

It’s time for the Percolator. It’s time for the Percolator.”

I was twenty-something. It was the early 2000s, and I was in Raleigh, NC at a nightclub called Visions (long since extinct). The DJ took center stage, and the crowd gathered ’round.

“Come on up to do ‘The Percolator,'” she said, and I took a step forward, towards the spotlight.

My friend grabbed my arm and held me back. “You don’t know how to do ‘The Percolator,'” she hissed.

She was right; I’d never heard of it in my life. I fought off her grasp. “I don’t care; I’ll do it anyways.”

But she was a muscly sort, and she held me back as a handful of dancers came forward, and a song came over the speakers – more of a pattern of popping sounds than a song. The only lyrics:

“It’s time for The Percolator
it’s time for the percolator.”

I don’t know that I ever properly thanked that friend.

This is the closest video I could find to what I saw that night:

I remember more popping up and down, like coffee in my aluminum camping percolator. Its clear glass top shows when the water is boiling over the grounds, and you can watch it change from light tan to strong, rich brew while you wait. Whenever I use it, I think…it’s time for the Percolator.

This post is, improbably, about my poem being accepted to the NC Poetry Society’s “Poetry in Plain Sight” program. “PIPS” brings North Carolina poems into “plain sight” in major NC towns, such as Raleigh, by printing them on posters. I am deeply honored to be selected.

The poem they chose is “Language.” I submitted it without any clear idea of what “PIPS” was, what I was signing up for, or the slightest anticipation that I’d be chosen. I just stepped forward.

I’m ready to dance. My poem will be on display next February in windows and other street-visible locations in Winston-Salem, Greensboro, Burnsville, Wilmington, Durham, Greenville, and Raleigh. As Lil John says, “To the window, to the wall.” It’s time for the Percolator.

Conspiracy Beeries

Conspiracy Beeries

I know someone who likes conspiracy theories.

It’s all of us; we all like conspiracy theories.

We’re wired to link disparate events and people, finding hidden connections and uncovering the meaning we so desperately crave. It gives us the advantage over our less sentient co-animals, but it can lead to some pretty crazy ideas, too.

Like this blog post, for example.

I was at The Bar in the Middle of the Road one evening, in Carolina Beach, NC. It had another name, but I don’t remember it now; we only ever called it “the Bar in the Middle of the Road.”

I liked that bar. It was lodged awkwardly in a fork of the main road. What they lacked in ambiance, they made up for in absurdity. Who puts a bar in the middle of the road?

It was there that I first (and last) tried Rasputin Imperial Stout. It ranks as the darkest, thickest, stoutest stout I’ve ever drank. Look at the picture on the bottle; it tastes like the expression on that gnarly mystic’s face. It tastes dangerous.

Outside the Bar in the Middle of the Road, a man was playing music, trying to be heard above the roar of traffic. He had a karaoke machine that kept accompaniment while he sang and played intermittently on his guitar. Never before or since have I seen a performer rely on a karaoke machine.

He asked for requests from the (small) crowd, plugged the song into his machine, and sang along, strumming the guitar when he saw fit, all the while making snarky comments about the patrons’ song choices and looking at the crowd with a clear sense of disdain. Who’s judging who, here, sir?

“Any suggestions?” he asked, sure we’d name the lamest songs ever.

Rasputin in hand, I called out over the rush of cars, “James Taylor.”

“Oh what? ‘Carolina in My Mind’? ‘Fire and Rain’?” he asked with a sneer.

“‘Millworker,'” I said. A dare. No one knows “Millworker”.

His face cleared; he turned off the machine. “I actually know that one.”

He played “Millworker” beautifully, soulfully, authentically. Everyone stopped talking to listen. The cars buzzed on.

He finished, and our eyes met. Yes, that’s a good song.

James Taylor’s “Millworker” was written for a Broadway play, for use in a scene about a steelworker’s struggles.

“Yes, but it’s my life, has been wasted
And I have been the fool
To let this manufacturer
Use my body for a tool”

I’m currently reading David Cecelski’s blog post, “The Revolt of the Lint Dodgers: The Lumberton Cotton Mill Workers of 1937.” I like ALL his work, which is extensive, so don’t be surprised if I mention him repeatedly.

“Revolt” details the strike of 1930s cotton mill workers less than two hours away from the Bar in the Middle of the Road. The work days were long, the pay low, the hazards high. The workers were as young as twelve (or younger, pitching in to help mom); they lived in homes owned by the mill company. The work was becoming faster-paced, more grueling, less humane. Their bodies and lives were tools of the mill owners. Cecelski’s story highlights how they (mostly peaceably) pushed for changes in this system.

Rasputin was the spiritual advisor to the last Emperor of Russia and his family (including Princess Anastasia, featured in a Disney movie). The last Emperor became the last Emperor because the working class rose up against him in dissatisfaction with working conditions and social inequalities, non-peaceably. Rasputin unwittingly helped their cause by giving bad press and bad advise to the monarchy.

I once attended an anarchist meeting. That’s what they said they were, which sounded exciting to a first-year college student with a love of punk music. But it was a bunch of talk about labor laws abroad, the World Trade Organization, and other peoples’ revolutions. Turns out I wasn’t serious about anarchy, after all; I just wanted to stick up an occasional middle finger to the Man.

So where am I going with this?

If you drink Rasputin beer while listening to a song about the struggles of millworkers, in a bar a few hours from an old unionized mill town, and you once attended an anarchist meeting, and you find a connection between those events, you’re either a conspiracy theorist or a writer. I choose writer.

The “Writer’s Digest Handbook of Novel Writing” (I already read the updated one; now I’m reading the 90s version) calls this “segmented reality.” Call it what you will; it’s the stuff that stories are made of.

Photo: Bernt Rostad from Oslo, Norway, CC BY 2.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0, via Wikimedia Commons