I love oysters. I love them raw, especially. I love when they are fresh, how when you shuck the top shell off the bottom, there’s a little sucking sound and feeling as the vacuum releases. How when that vacuum releases, you have suddenly before you an entire environment. A fragile, glistening entity, pale and creamy, set off by dark ruffles just like the collar of a nineteenth century woman. How the aroma of the sea, fresh, wild, and briny — bracing, invigorating, clean — douses you all at once, like a wave.
It doesn’t hurt that they’re as sexy as all get out. The fact that they randomly divulge a perfect pearl from time to time is just some over-the-top, Hollywood-esque, and totally unneeded extra. It’s almost embarrassing, in fact. Who needs a pearl when you have the gorgeous bivalve herself?
I love oysters. The meaning they have for my dad. Today, I picked my dad’s friend Jody up at Grand Lake Gardens to bring her to see my dad at Piedmont Gardens Skilled Nursing. That was a story in and of itself of course, but trust me, it relates to this because, on the way home, as I drove Jody back after an abysmal, inedible lunch with my dad, Jody reflected on the “fun times” she used to have with my dad.
Fun. A boyfriend once said to me, “You’re so… fun!” I remember the look on his face. He seemed to be marveling that I was “fun.” That I was able to be “fun.” I remember how the word made me feel. It felt like one of the truest compliments I had ever received. It also made me wonder. Fun? Was I fun? I hadn’t realized I was fun. We are all, only ever, in our own skins. We cannot of course have anyone else’s experience.
I hadn’t realized I was fun. But, it’s all relative. Maybe I was fun for this Sephardic Israeli with a mother from Tunisia who’d grown up in poverty with a taxi-driver father. A man who felt misunderstood by his family, who’s sibling died young of a terrible poisoning by some common cleanser under the sink, who became a Ph.D in biochemistry. For this man, I was fun. And, yes, I bet, for this man, I was indeed fun.
But, what is fun?
Wait. I set out to write about the lovely, beautiful, demure, and scintillating oyster. That led to my dad, to Jody, then to fun… Yes, I see how this works.
Yes, fun. Jody said it was so fun with my dad. And yes, it was fun. And you know why? One of the reasons my dad was (and is) fun is because he enjoys food. He loves food. He eats everything including brains and tongues and eyeballs and you name it. The works. He’d eat the “Kitchen Sink” sundae we used to get at the Ice Creamery on Lakeshore when I was little. He could never decide which ice cream he liked better: coffee, pineapple sherbet, or rum raisin. This is a man with wide diverging interests, at least in the realm of food.
Jody said, You’re dad introduced me to oysters. I had never had an oyster until I met your dad. (Mind you, Jody is now… near 90. She met my dad when she was… near 70?)
“We’d go out to the cheese factory,” she said. (The Rouge et Noir cheese factory in Marin that my dad used to take us all to when we were little.)
“Then, we’d go to Johnson’s Oyster Farm. Your dad taught me about oysters. And Japanese food,” she added.
Yes, my father is obsessed with oysters. It would not surprise me if “oyster” is his last word. Because, he loves them. On Father’s Day last year, we bought $100 (Jesus, was it really?) worth of oysters at the new Johnson’s or whatever took their place. We set ourselves up on Heart’s Desire Beach in Point Reyes. He could barely walk, but with two of us alongside him and his walker, we did okay. We set him up, stuck his cap on his head. My daughter stationed herself with the board and the shucker and began pulling cool, weighty, nubby oysters from the burlap sack that had been given us.
She was a master. She worked methodically, carefully. She did not lose her patience and splinter the shell like the rest of us did. Very quickly, she developed the needed dexterity, the turn of the wrist, the magic. She set glistening, living, breathing oysters before each of us. We took turns stationing ourselves near my dad, the king oyster lover, and tipping these briny beauties into his mouth. He was in heaven.
Once, many years ago, I formulated the fantasy of being asked to a wedding or party where I could have as many oysters as I wanted. The idea of having as many oysters as I wanted was preposterous. I could think of nothing more decadent — or impossible.
A few years later, I was invited to such a party, and I partook, heartily. I couldn’t believe I was able to go up to a long banquet table covered by a silky white table cloth undulating in a gentle ocean breeze and order an oyster. And another, and another. Oysters raw with lime and horseradish. Garlicky Oysters Rockefeller with the faintest touch of licorice (Pernod). Oysters with a spicy-tart mignonette sauce. I ate till I was full, really, really full. But not sick. A belly full of oysters does not, may not, will not make me sick.
Why would it? My father raised me on the beast. I remember sneaking down the stairs with my little brother to spy on our parents having dinner. Candles would be lit on the dark wood table. Wine would be poured. Oddly, I seem to remember my parents at opposite ends of the dining room table. (Just in this minute, I remember this. Is it true? Can it be?)
We’d be wearing our matching clock pajamas, the snappy pajamas whose tops fastened by metal snaps to the bottoms. Faded, in both our cases. Red faded in mine, with a watch face and trailing chain on the chest amidst a sea of cascading numbers. Blue, in my brother’s case.
We’d sneak down, peer around the corner, behold the sight, and then creep forward to beg for morsels from my parents’ table.
My mother would try to be more strict, and we were afraid of her.
But, my father would chuckle amiably. As soon as that happened, we knew we were in the clear. He couldn’t hide the fact that this was his favorite part of the night.
I remember stationing myself at his knee, my face at the height of the table edge, and opening my mouth as he presented and I scarfed raw oysters. They delighted me. Either they, or the realization I made my father happy. Or the knowledge of knowing I was special. I was being treated to something special. Something faintly forbidden. Something only for adults. Something past bedtime.
These last few years, where my father has suffered from relentlessly advancing dementia, the sure ticket was always oysters. No matter what we asked, the answer was likely to be “Oysters!”
Dad, what do you want to do this weekend?
Dad, what do you want for dinner?
Dad, we’re having a picnic. Where do you want to go?
Dad, we’re taking you on a Sunday drive. What do you want to do?
This last Father’s Day, seven or eight months ago, we gave my dad this most precious of presents. As many oysters as he wanted. As many as he could eat. (And he could eat a lot.) Shucked methodically, one at a time, by his beautiful grand-daughter. Carried by his beloved daughter (because, I am) to his side to be carefully tipped into his mouth by said beloved daughter.
Not a bad way to spend what might be one’s last Father’s Day on this spinning earth.
Of course, I hope to God, I hope beyond hope, I am wrong.
In the mean time, we will continue to have oysters. Oysters with my Pop. Simple, firm, white, creamy, briny, yummy oysters. Mignonette. Rockefeller. Stew. Soup. Or simply with a squeeze of lime and a dollop of horseradish. That will do us just fine.