Consider the Oysters
Rank #6 of 1949
About my essay:
Food is memory. And like the oysters, good food is good memory.
Consider the oysters, this friend of mine tells me recently as I’m preparing to leave New Orleans for Paris. Never know when you’ll get them again. And now I’m sitting at a table in front of your typical sidewalk café on the Boulevard St. Germain facing half a dozen Breton oysters and a Kronenbourg’s, and I realize she’s right. I may never taste these again. Not in New Orleans. As of this writing, every oyster bed in Louisiana is closed due to oil contamination. The politics of this are beside the point; the situation is rapidly changing. A month from the now, those beds could be free from danger or gone for years. So for posterity’s sake, let’s consider the oysters as they are now: a memory.
In a way, the endangered Louisiana oyster is the perfect representative not only of New Orleans cuisine but of cooking in general. To cook well in New Orleans—and to eat well by extension—is birthright. In a city where dining at a restaurant with more than one location is tantamount to mortal sin, food occupies a place of reverence roughly even with the Church. Millions pass through every year in search of Creole dishes that can’t be found on their side of the continent, structuring their stays around lunches and dinners separated only by filler disguised as sightseeing. But New Orleans is not alone. In cities the world over, the popularity of gastro-tourism is rising. Restaurants are replacing museums as important entries on travel itineraries. Check the guidebook on your next visit to the City of Light. Hell, check it on your next visit to Denver. In fact, I’ll check for you before I dig in. The food section has grown. Mine lists more than two hundred restaurants and cafes over thirty pages. Food is entertainment. Food is memory. And like the oysters, good food is good memory, fit to be stored away in your mind beside that walk along the Seine or that night out in the French Quarter or a day spent fishing the Gulf of Mexico when the water was clear.
If all this food talk has you remembering your own culinary moment—a meal from your youth, maybe—there’s good reason. You probably don’t remember the last time you ate at McDonald’s. But I’ll bet you can describe down to the smallest detail the smell of your grandmother’s kitchen as she stewed red beans on a Monday afternoon with a leftover Sunday ham bone. That’s the beauty of good cooking: it never dies. In a moment, I’ll eat the first oyster of what might be my last half dozen for a while. But before I do, let’s consider the oysters one last time. If these really are the last six oysters I eat, at least I know I’ll have the memory of a sunny sidewalk and a cold beer and the salt of a halfshell to take back home. And after that, I guess I’ll consider something new.