In reading a book, we all inevitably refract the words before us through the lens of our current concerns. We are not surprised to learn that Santa Claus thinks books on various topics are all somehow allegories of the Christmas story. It won’t surprise you then to discover that I have been reading Proust’s “In Search Of Lost Time” and finding it impossible to keep my mind off Madeleines.
This book is about the uncanny verbosity of a morsel of food. When it strikes the tongue, it speaks. Here is the narrator, as translated by my French colleague, Le Gnome de Plume: “But when from a distant past nothing survives, after the beings are dead and the things are broken and scattered, alone, more fragile but more vital, more unsubstantial, more persistent, more faithful, the smell and taste of things remain long after, like souls, remembering, waiting, hoping, amid the ruins of all the rest, to unfailingly bear, on the back of a tiny almost impalpable droplet of their essence, the vast edifice of remembrance.”
So what’s the point of all this verbiage about the mouth and nose? We know these organs are designed to give us the information necessary to either swallow a piece of food or spit it out if it’s poisonous. To your tongue, bitter means poison, sweet means carbohydrates, salty means minerals and the like, and savory means protein (for the meaning of spicy, I recommend this experiment: Dice a habanero pepper, then put it in your mouth and chew until your head explodes).
That’s all well and good, but what about those Madeleines that caused the town of Combray to burst forth from a cup of tea? What about the poetics of eating? Indeed, we have bigger fish to fry, which is why I want to talk about Thanksgiving.
Thanksgiving is perhaps the most static meal in the world. In homes everywhere in America, millions of turkeys and sweet potatoes and pumpkin pies are prepared exactly as they have been done for decades by husbands and wives and grandmothers and uncles. I see Aunt Millie coming to the door with her famous cranberry relish, and there is cousin Steve with those (infamous) things he always makes. Each of us has foods that instantly signify Thanksgiving. Each year, the significance becomes denser by one layer, until the very whiff of a pot of cranberry sauce or a boat of gravy is enough to make your top, if you let it, spin right off.
Oyster stuffing is the stuff that spins my top. On the coast of Washington State you will find stretches of the smelliest and most fertile oyster beds on the planet. Next to them is a tiny hamlet named, aptly, Oysterville.
Oysterville is my Combray. I spent my summers there eating oysters on the half shell by the baker’s dozen and monkeying about on piles of oyster shells the size of small houses, getting sunburned under the eye of the oyster sun. But rather than write a novel about it, I give you my family’s recipe for oyster stuffing.
To make good oyster stuffing, you do not need an enormous amount of talent or ingenuity. You will, however, need:
1 quart of fresh shucked oysters with their liquid.
1 1/2 cups each diced onions and celery.
1 loaf of old dried french bread, cut into cubes.
Salt, pepper, and cajun seasoning.
Additional chicken broth, if needed.
1 grandmother to tell stories while you cook.
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Saute the onions and celery in a skillet with butter over medium heat until the celery is soft and the onions are lightly gold in color. Then drain the liquid from the oysters and reserve it. Give the oysters a rough chop and add them to the pan.
Continue cooking for a few minutes, until the oysters are hot. Now add the reserved liquid to the pan and continue cooking until it begins to boil. In a large mixing bowl add the bread and then the contents of the pan and mix until well incorporated.
The stuffing should feel like a damp sponge at this point. If it’s too dry, add some chicken broth; if it’s too wet, add more bread. Season with salt and pepper. Add Cajun seasoning until the sounds of a dixieland rag begin wafting out of the bowl. This done, spread it in a baking dish, cover with foil, and bake for 30 to 45 minutes. Remove from oven and serve immediately. Finally, prepare to be transported, and begin.