In 1942, the French essayist Francis Ponge published a collection of writings - short pieces in a nebulous space between essay and prose poem - called Le Parti-Pris des Choses. He wrote of everyday objects: a loaf of bread, a candle, a bar of soap. He wrote, too, of the humble oyster.
The oyster, though the size of an average pebble, is of a rougher appearance, a less uniform color, brilliantly off-white. It is a world stubbornly closed. However it can be opened: it must be held in the folds of a dishtowel, and with a blunted and chipped knife, prised at again and again. Probing fingers cut themselves, nails tear: it is rough work. The blows inflicted envelop it with white circles, a halo of sorts.
Inside lies an entire world, both food and drink: underneath a firmament (strictly speaking) of nacre, the heavens above cling to the heavens below, forming nothing less than an ocean, a sac viscous and green-hued that ebbs and flows in scent and sight, fringed at the edges with blackish lace.
Sometimes, though very rarely, a pearl forms in its nacreous throat, which is quickly used as ornament.
Ponge's language is exquisite and precise, and it captures an oyster with beautiful clarity. However, to paraphrase Mark Twain, sometimes the difference between food
preparation and food writing is like the difference between "lightning"
and "lightning bug." Clearly, the sorry bastard never worked a day in food service in his life.
If he had, the poem might look something more like this:
Sunday lunch. We've already crossed the hundred pax mark, and it's not yet two pm. I have just sent the last of five pizzas up to the pass, and I am hoping for a few spare minutes in which I might tidy up my bench and perhaps run back to the coolroom for another container of tomato paste.
"New order, one dozen oysters!" calls the chef. I grit my teeth. The new order is my problem; due to a quirk in kitchen layout, the pizza station is also responsible for cold seafood.
"Oui, chef!" is my response, a shout projected over the exhaust fan and the whirr of the pastry section's Pacojet. Inside, I am thinking "Fuck." And probably whispering it under my breath, too. Take this for an absolute truth: there are no clean mouths in a commercial kitchen.
I go for the tray of oysters in my reach-in fridge. They arrived earlier this week from a tiny little coastal town in New South Wales, twenty dozen in a coffin of Styrofoam, sent by express air mail. I spent an afternoon scrubbing their purple-tinged shells of mud and sand and algae, stacking them with foil interleaved. Now I reach in and grab thirteen - just in case one is bad, or cracks, or proves truly impossible to open.
Over to the sink with my baker's dozen of oysters, teatowel in one hand, oyster blade in the other. The trick, I know, is to seek out the hinge, the weak point between the shells.
Ponge had one thing right: the oyster is a stubborn little bugger. The moment the hinge gives way is always one of triumph, followed by a moment of held breath as I confirm that I've neither stabbed the oyster nor left any traces of shell. Then a fresh wave of irritation, as I remember that there are another eleven to go - assuming there aren't any oysters that are bad or any brittle shells that splinter - and I can't help but wish a pox on the idiot who ordered a whole dozen.
Four, six, eight, nine... ten... eleven... twelve. Recheck to make sure I haven't miscounted.
When the full dozen are opened and ready, they are arranged on a platter in a bed of rock salt. Then it's a scramble to assemble all the accompaniments. Carefully spoon red wine vinegar mignonette into a dish. Add a lemon wedge carefully cleansed of all pips, long slivers of saucission, and dainty squares of grain bread generously spread
with pale French butter. Confirm that plate is complete and clean. Over to the pass.
"One dozen oysters. Service, please!"
I am always immensely, intensely relieved when the platter is whisked away.
Know this for a fact: if I opened an oyster in lunch service and found a pearl, I'd just be relieved to catch it before it could become a choking hazard.
Sauce Mignonette: An Exercise in Brunoise of Shallot
You'll see mignonette with all kinds of vinegars, but I like white wine vinegar because it shows off the purple-and-white of the shallots. (Believe me, if you're going to make yourself cross-eyed cutting brunoise of shallot, you'll want to show off your knifework, too.)
Begin by setting up your cutting board and readying a nice, sharp knife. Grab your shallots; allow one large shallot per dozen oysters.
Take your shallot, trim off the papery tip, and cut it in half lengthways.
Remove the green germ from the center of each half.
Place one half cut side down, and cut it across horizontally, into thirds.
Then make cuts along the length of the shallot, from root to tip.
Then cut across, to form dice.
Repeat the process with the other half, plus any remaining shallots. Place the brunoise in a small bowl. Pour over white wine vinegar, enough to cover:
Allow to rest for an hour or two, so that the vinegar can infuse. Transfer to a serving container.
Also, for anyone who might be curious, Ponge's work in the original French:
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.