Today someone asked me if I liked oysters. I love France at moments like this. I was standing in a long line in the sun outside the butcher shop, all meters away from each other, listening to music and texting about oysters. The sky, an incredible heavenly blue today, may be falling but let’s talk about eating oysters. I have so many stories: Oregon oysters in creamy soup with my mother at Christmas, eating oysters in a fancy restaurant in Brittany when I was so broke but we splurged for one meal and it was utterly delightful, paper plates of oysters with my family and we just couldn’t stop in Marin County, swampy sexy Cajun oysters in New Orleans in an old dark restaurant, free oysters at El Rio in the 1990s in San Francisco when I drank all those tiny martinis with G. and we danced and played pool, the bizarre Christmas when a hostile woman gave me an electric oyster knife, probably so I would hurt myself and go away, and oh yes Francis Ponge’s beautiful prose poem!
At the very beginning of this millennium my cousin got married near Point Reyes. It was the first wedding of our little generation and we all came to laugh, to toast, to embrace her because we love her so much and who was this dashing and very entertaining man she was going to make a new life and a new family with? So I’m standing in line far from home during a pandemic, as one does, and oysters, and cousins, and memories of January in Marin County and family and I miss everything so much and yet what an amazing life I got to lead so far. I don’t remember a lot about the wedding ceremony except some frantic hemming and a lot of milling around but the next morning we all gathered for breakfast outside the small B and B. Barbecued oysters. And coffee. And sun slowly warming our cold fingers, and family. My boy cousins had gone down to the oyster farm early to get boxes of mollusks and we stood around the fire as they slowly opened in the heat and then we slurped them down. My Italian uncle was there making us laugh and everyone was relaxed after the fancy night and it was so beautiful. Oysters.
Another memory. Many years ago I moved to France as a college student. I was bound and determined to learn French so I eschewed the company of all of the other American students, didn’t read Newsweek and only hung out with people who would speak French with me, a Basque student on my exchange and a Scottish student also coming from California. There was no internet and the telephone was mighty expensive so I managed to not speak English for weeks and weeks. It was so hard. I got terrible grades on my French written assignments and spent hours in some kind of elocution class giggling as we repeated “il est minuscule, il est minuscule.” That u – so challenging for Americans. For the first few weeks I collapsed into bed before dark, my head pounding with the effort of so, so much concentration. It doesn’t matter how much French you study. This language that is spoken here is so much faster and so different than any language course. We came in August and then one evening in November my Scottish friend’s host family invited some of us over for a party. A seafood party which is a nice fancy thing in France.
We had dark bread, white whine, shrimps in their shells and raw oysters. I had never eaten a raw oyster out of the shell before but I wasn’t going to be a squeamish American and wince. I took it and tipped it up and down the gullet it went. The sea, the glorious sea! I ate the sea and I was hooked. More white wine, more oysters, more hanging out on the balcony looking at the town at night. We laughed and mingled with their French friends until very late. That night, at about 11 pm, I suddenly realized that I had been speaking French for hours and I hadn’t been thinking about it, not at all. The veil between my communicative self and my scholarly self had lifted and I was riding a bike, no hands, whee! That November night, my first raw oyster in the shell, my first French conversation without effort. Such bliss. My son turned to me a few days ago and said “at least you got to do a lot of good stuff first [before Covid].” He’s right. I really did get to do a lot of good stuff.
L’huître, de la grosseur d’un galet moyen, est d’une apparence plus rugueuse, d’une couleur moins unie, brillamment blanchâtre. C’est un monde opiniâtrement clos. Pourtant on peut l’ouvrir : il faut alors la tenir au creux d’un torchon, se servir d’un couteau ébréché et peu franc, s’y reprendre à plusieurs fois. Les doigts curieux s’y coupent, s’y cassent les ongles : c’est un travail grossier. Les coups qu’on lui porte marquent son enveloppe de ronds blancs, d’une sorte de halos.
A l’intérieur l’on trouve tout un monde, à boire et à manger : sous un firmament (à proprement parler) de nacre, les cieux d’en dessus s’affaissent sur les cieux d’en dessous, pour ne plus former qu’une mare, un sachet visqueux et verdâtre, qui flue et reflue à l’odeur et à la vue, frangé d’une dentelle noirâtre sur les bords.
Parfois très rare une formule perle à leur gosier de nacre, d’où l’on trouve aussitôt à s’orner.
Francis Ponge – Le parti pris des choses (1942)