What better time than summer, these hot months without "r"s in them, to consider the oyster? I reread M.F.K. Fisher's masterpiece for maybe the 15th time on a recent afternoon. It's short enough to read in one sitting, but I warn you: Make sure you have immediate access to oysters afterward. She practically commands you to go straight out and order a dozen or two raw ones on shaved ice and wash them down with a thin, cold white wine, no matter what the month. And M.F.K. Fisher is not a writer whose suggestions ought to be taken lightly.
Consider the Oyster demands, like a poem, to be reread immediately on finishing it. It's filled with recipes so direct and concrete, you can taste them as you read, along with arresting images — a chilly, delicate gray body sliding down a red throat. This book packs a wallop in a small amount of space, satisfies without satiating and goes down easily, pithy and nutritious and sweetly briny.
It opens with a witty overview of the "dreadful but exciting" life of an oyster. Then come descriptions and recipes for certain ways oysters can and should be eaten, either raw, in their shells with various condiments and buttered brown bread, or cooked in buttery, milky stews and soups and all manner of other delicacies. Fisher is democratic and broad-minded but firmly opinionated at every turn; on the question of what alcohol goes best with oysters, she runs through the possibilities and concludes that just about anything will do. The book ends with nostalgic memories of other people's oysters past: her own mother's schoolgirl treat of baked oyster loaf, a San Francisco bohemian's breathless passion for an oyster omelet he called Hang Town Fry, the story of a young virginal man's wishful and fruitless overindulgence, and a fleeting, poetic boyhood trespass on a Chesapeake Bay oyster bed at dawn.
Fisher wrote this book in 1941, while her second husband, the love of her life, Dillwyn Parrish, was suffering from Buerger's disease, a rare autoimmune response to smoking; the phantom pain from his amputated leg become so bad that he eventually shot himself. That she chose to write about the oyster — aphrodisiac, mysterious, a source of pleasure and strength — during the darkest time of her life suggests that the book was intended at least in part as a source of comfort. But not one word is self-pitying or elegiacal; the tone is joyful, playful and succinctly optimistic.
If there is a philosophy implicit in these pages, it is that great pleasure in food is there for the taking. Food is not a metaphor for life. It is life, and eating is an art. Now, more than ever, in this era of obsessive self-denial, obsessive overindulgence and obsessive moderation, it is deeply satisfying to be reminded that, as Fisher writes, "often the place and time help make a food what it becomes, even more than the food itself." In the hands of such a writer, reading about eating oysters is almost as good as eating them, and sometimes even better.
You Must Read This is produced and edited by Ellen Silva.