Tuesday, July 24, 2012

The First Oyster-Eater.

Jonathan Swift is credited with saying “he was a brave man who first ate an oyster.” I suspect that the truth is, he was a hungry man, but never mind. I was pondering upon this first man one day, and came across a wonderfully florid description of who he might have been, and how his oyster-eating might have come about, in Sayings, Wise and Otherwise (New York; 1880) Actually, it is two stories, as if the author could not decide on a happy or tragic ending. Here it is:

“ … we infer that oysters came originally from Britain. The word is unquestionably primitive. The broad open vowelly sound is, beyond a doubt, the primal, spontaneous thought that found utterance when the soft, seductive mollusc first exposed its white bosom in its pearly shell to the enraptured gaze of aboriginal man! Is there a question about it? Does not everyone know, when he sees an oyster, that that is its name? And hence we reason that it originated in Britain, was latinized by the Romans, replevined by the Saxons, corrupted by the Teutons and finally barbecued by the French. Oh, philological ladder by which we mount upward, until we emerge beneath the clear vertical light of Truth ! ! Methinks I see the FIRST OYSTER-EATER! A brawny, naked savage, with his wild hair matted over his wild eyes, a zodiac of fiery stars tattooed across his muscular breast — unclad, unsandaled, hirsute and hungry — he breaks through the underwoods that margin the beach, and stands alone upon the sea-shore, with nothing in one hand but his unsuccessful boar-spear, and nothing in the other but his fist. There he beholds a splendid panorama! The west all aglow; the conscious waves blushing as the warm sun sinks to their embraces; the blue sea on his left; the interminable forest on his right; and the creamy sea-sand curving in delicate tracery between. A Picture and a Child of Nature! Delightedly he plunges in the foam, and swims to the bald crown of a rock that uplifts itself above the waves. Seating himself he gazes upon the calm expanse beyond, and swings his legs against the moss that spins its filmy tendrils in the brine. Suddenly he utters a cry; springs up; the blood streams from his foot. With barbarous fury he tears up masses of sea moss, and with it clustering families of testacea. Dashing them down upon the rock, he perceives a liquor exuding from the fragments; he sees the white pulpy delicate morsel half hidden in the cracked shell, and instinctively reaching upward, his hand finds his mouth, and amidst a savage, triumphant deglutition, he murmurs — OYSTER ! ! Champing in his uncouth fashion bits of shell and sea-weed, with uncontrollable pleasure he masters this mystery of a new sensation, and not until the gray veil of night is drawn over the distant waters, does he leave the rock, covered with the trophies of his victory.
We date from this epoch the maritime history of England. Ere long, the reedy cabins of her aborigines clustered upon the banks of beautiful inlets, and overspread her long lines of level beaches; or penciled with delicate wreaths of smoke the savage aspect of her rocky coasts. The sword was beaten into the oyster-knife, and the spear into oyster rakes. Commerce spread her white wings along the shores of happy Albion, and man emerged at once into civilization from a nomadic state. From this people arose the mighty nation of Ostrogoths, from the Ostraphagi of Ancient Britain came the custom of Ostracism — that is, sending political delinquents to that place where they can get no more oysters.
There is a strange fatality attending all discoverers. Our Briton saw a mighty change come over his country — a change beyond the reach of memory or speculation. — Neighboring tribes, formerly hostile, were now linked together in bonds of amity. A sylvan, warlike people had become a peaceful, piscivorous community; and he himself, once the lowest of his race, was now elevated above the dreams of his ambition. He stood alone upon the sea-shore, looking toward the rock, which, years ago, had been his stepping-stone to power, and a desire to revisit it came over him. He stands now upon it. The season, the hour, the westerly sky, remind him of former times. He sits and meditates. Suddenly a flush of pleasure overspreads his countenance; for there just below the flood, he sees a gigantic bivalve — alone — with mouth agape, as if yawning with very weariness at the solitude in which it found itself. What I am about to describe may be untrue. But I believe it. I have heard of the waggish propensities of oysters. I have known them, from mere humor, to clap suddenly upon a rat’s tail at night; and, what with the squeaking and the clatter, we verily thought the devil had broken loose in the cellar. Moreover, I am told upon another occasion, when a demijohn of brandy had burst, a large “Blue-pointer” was found, lying in a little pool of liquor, just drunk enough to be careless of consequences — opening and shutting his shells with a “devil-may-care” air, as if he didn’t value anybody a brass farthing, but was going to be as noisy as he possibly could.
But to return. When our Briton saw the oyster in this defenseless attitude, he knelt down, and gradually reaching his arm toward it, he suddenly thrust his fingers in the aperture, and the oyster closed upon them with a spasmodic snap! In vain the Briton tugged and roared; he might as well have tried to uproot the solid rock as to move that oyster! In vain he called upon his heathen gods — Gog and Magog — older than Woden and Thor; and with huge, uncouth, druidical oaths consigned all shell-fish to Nidhogg, Hela, and the submarines. Bivalve held on with “a will.” It was nuts for him certainly. Here was a great, lubberly, chuckle-headed fellow, the destroyer of his tribe, with his fingers in chancery, and the tide rising! A fellow who had thought, like ancient Pistol, to make the world his oyster, and here was the oyster making a world of him. Strange mutation! The poor Briton raised his eyes: there were the huts of his people; he could even distinguish his own, with its slender spiral of smoke; they were probably preparing a roast for him; how he detested a roast! Then a thought of his wife, his little ones awaiting him, tugged at his heart. The waters rose around him. He struggled, screamed in his anguish; but the remorseless winds dispersed the sounds, and ere the evening moon arose and flung her white radiance upon the placid waves, the last billow had rolled over the FIRST OYSTER-EATER!”

Most of the oyster aficionados that I know will not countenance anything other than the ultra-fresh, live, naked, raw beast, straight from the shell – the only accompaniment being a glass of chilled champagne. Such purists eschew any form of cooking, however brief. The following recipe is for the less-than pure, who hanker for the days when oysters were food for the poor, and a cheap filler for pies and stews.

Oyster Sausages.
Take ½ lb lean mutton, ¾ lb beef suet, ½ lb oysters, scalded and with their beards taken off. Chop all up together, add the yolks of 2 eggs, season with salt and pepper, and make up in the form of sausages, frying lightly in the usual way.
The Food Journal Vol. 11 (London, 1872)

Quotation for the Day.

An oyster, sir, is one of the elements of social existence, a delicacy of no age, sex, or condition, but patent to the universal family of man. Good in a scallop, better in a stew, best of all in the shell; good in pickle, in curry, in sauce, good at luncheon, before dinner, at supper; good to entertain a friend, good to eat by yourself; good when you are hungry’ good, moreover, when you are not.
The Irish Oyster-Eater.


Imagica said...

Who is the Author of this magnificent tripe, so redolent of it's period?
I have not enjoyed anything so much for an age!

The Old Foodie said...

Hello Imagica: sadly, the author does not seem to have been credited in the publication, but I will check again, and do a bit of sleuthing to see if I can find out.