The Oyster and I

Unlike some, I don’t remember my first oyster as epiphanic. That’s no reflection on the oyster, which I’m certain was good, plump and fresh from the Gulf, arguably among the best in the world, but I ate it on my first trip to Jackson, which was a dizzying affair for a 7-year-old boy from a sawmill village in north Mississippi.

After the thrill of seeing the frothy Rez from the Trace, riding in a highway patrol cruiser (my last time in the front seat of one) and ogling at the Capitol dome, eating oysters at the Mayflower seemed pedestrian. The bouffants of the waitresses made far more of an impression than the shellfish, and when ours yelled at some idiot from Atlanta who ordered a poached egg, I tried to die three times. Out of sheer terror, I left her all the money I had–two quarters–because she glared at me when I asked for an extra straw.

Oysters enjoy a sex life that makes human sexuality totally lame, switching sexes according to a variety of environmental factors. If you’re a young oyster (a spat), one season ‘s Uncle Louie might be the next’s Aunt Louise. Not only that, but oysters reproduce by spewing their sperm and eggs into the water around them in an impregnating haze, the human equivalent of desperate yet sincere sex with someone on the other side of the Jacuzzi.

Any encouraging words of prolific reproduction and growth among oysters strike a chord of extreme indifference among those people who rate the oyster as a food on par with nasal mucus, but those of us who hold the mollusk in the highest esteem find it heartening. Oysters were once so plentiful in American coastal waters that no meal that aspired to distinction was complete without them, but since the first decades of the last century the mollusk has been in catastrophic decline and the prices have escalated accordingly. Oysters at the Mayflower in 1967 cost a dime apiece, a dollar a dozen.

Eating a raw oyster is like stealing a kiss from the ocean: a wet, slightly salty, totally sensuous experience unbridled by any sort of fussy preparation. I’m firmly convinced that anyone who doesn’t enjoy oysters is a bad kisser, and I have centuries of documentation to back me up in this opinion. Oysters have enjoyed a reputation as an aphrodisiac for millennia. Now that I am well past the salad stage of life and forging steadily past dessert, I firmly intend to keep oysters a mainstay between courses. If God is willing, I shall have them with my cordial.

I still like oysters with a dab of tart, horseradish-y cocktail sauce, but I also enjoy a lighter sauce that’s a bit more in tune with the sublime texture of the animal as it comes–quivering in its nakedness–to my lips.

Mignonette Sauce

Combine 2/3 cup wine vinegar, a small, finely-minced shallot, 2 tablespoons olive oil, and a tablespoon each freshly-ground black pepper and minced parsley.  Bottle, refrigerate, and shake well before dribbling over freshly-shucked oysters.

Oven-Fried Oysters

Oven-fried anything will always be far inferior to something flat-out fried, but these are awfully good on the fly when you don’t want to deal with a lot of hot oil. Mix a cup of corn meal with a half cup of flour along with about a tablespoon of salt, black, and red pepper. Dip drained oysters in a wash made with one large egg whipped with a cup of water—you want it a little frothy. Dredge in meal/flour mixture, and bake in a very hot oven (400, at least) in a very well-oiled pan on an upper rack Flip five minutes after they begin sizzling. These are actually pretty good cold.

Sarepta

Sarepta was originally called Zarephath, meaning “a workshop for the refining and smelting of metals.” It was a small Phoenician town, near present-day Surafend (or Sarafend), about a mile from the Mediterranean coast, almost midway on the road between Tyre and Sidon. It is mentioned for the first time in the voyage of an Egyptian in the fourteenth century B.C. Sennacherib captured it in 701 B.C. (Schrader, “Die Keilinschriften und das Alte Testament”, 1883, pp. 200 and 288). Sarepta, despite its inconsiderance, has the high distinction of being named in both the Old Testament and the New. We learn from I Kings, 7:8-24, that it was subject to Sidon in the time of Achab and that the Prophet Elias, after having multiplied the meal and oil of a poor woman, raised her son from the dead. The charity of this widow was recalled by Christ (Luke 4:26). It was probably near this place that Christ cured the daughter of the Chanaanite or Syro-Phoenician woman whose faith He praised (Mark 7:24-30).

Sarepta is mentioned also by Josephus (“Ant. jud.”, VIII, xiii, 2); Pliny (Hist. natur., V, 17); the “Itinerarium Burdigalense; the “Onomasticon” of Eusebius and St. Jerome; by Theodosius and Pseudo-Antoninus who, in the sixth century calls it a small town, but very Christian (Geyer, “Intinera hierosolymitana”, Vienna, 1898, 18, 147, 150). It contained at that time a church dedicated to St. Elias. The “Notitia episcopatuum” of Antioch in the sixth century speaks of Sarepta as a suffragan see of Tyre (Echos d’Orient, X, 145); none of its bishops are known. Some Latin bishops, but merely titulars, are mentioned after 1346 (Eubel, “Hierarchia catholica medii aevi”, I, 457; II, 253; III, 310; “Revue benedictine”, XXI, 281, 345-53, 353-65; XXIV, 72). In 1185, the “Green Monk” Phocas (De locis sanctis, 7) found the town almost in its ancient condition; a century later, according to Burchard, it was in ruins and contained only seven or eight houses (Descriptio Terrae sanctae, II, 9). Sarepta was erected into a bishopric by the Crusaders, who raised a chapel over the reputed spot where Elijah restored the widow’s child. In the twelfth century it seems to have been a fortified city with a port and some stately buildings. Today, Sarepta is known as Khirbet Sarfend, between Tyre and Sidon, on the seashore; the ruins show that the town extended 1800 metres north and south, but that it was not very wide.

Giordano, Luca; Elijah and the Widow of Zarephath; Glasgow Museums

Come Home, Little Bob

You asked me about the statue in the cemetery, the one of the dog. The statue is on the Guinn family plot. The Guinns are gone now, but they were well-known. Robert Guinn was an attorney who handled mostly small claims, but made a good enough living to buy a house on President Street. He had a lovely wife named Rose and a little girl, Doris.

All little girls should be pretty, but Doris wasn’t; her face fused improperly in the womb. There’s a name for the condition that I can’t remember, but it’s a cruel assessment of the divine to say that was God’s will, if you ask me. She was never photographed, but there was a portrait painted, and the artist aligned her features. I saw it long ago; she had dark hair and a shy smile.

Doris in all other respects was a normal little girl; she had dolls and dresses and went to school with all the other little girls on the street. She also had a small dog, a spaniel of some kind that she adored. Her father had given her the puppy when she was five years old, so she named it after him. She called it Little Bob. The dog would follow her to school, wait afternoons on the corner for her to come home, and was with her when she died at twelve.

After that, Little Bob would go to the corner every afternoon and wait; at dark he’d go home until one day he couldn’t, and Bob Guinn went and got him. Oh, there was a big stink about putting the statue of a dog in a Christian cemetery, much less physical remains, but Robert Guinn took it to court and won the right, his finest hour before the bench.

So that’s Little Bob, resting at the feet of his mistress. He was a good dog.

Stewed Greens

Some people cook roots with greens, but I don’t. Cut three bunches of turnip and two of mustard right above the gather.  Strip the leaves from the stems and put them into a clean stoppered sink. Sprinkle with a generous amount of salt, cover with cold water, and agitate to knock off sand and other debris. Repeat the process until the greens are thoroughly clean; there’s nothing worse than gritty greens. Load leaves into a big pot on medium heat, add about two cups of light stock, a chopped white onion, and a pound of bone-in ham or turkey. Reduce heat and cover. Stew, stirring occasionally, for at least two hours, adjust salt, add a little pepper, and let sit a bit to set before serving.