Consider the OysterBy: Nani Steele Photos By: Gwendolyn Meyer
A culinarian/author takes a stroll down a soupy lane.
THERE’S NOTHING LIKE THE PACIFIC TO DRAW ME HOME; the vast ocean of blue that stretches as far as the eye can see on any given day. Or the sleepy shorelines that beckon on a fog swept morning, the mystery of the retreat, ducking under branches dripping with dew, nimbly following a narrow trail out to the edge, before climbing up towards the light.
Today, I’m struck by the ease in which I make my way; the certain path of memory that carries me forward as I talk and reminisce with my aunt is seemingly effortless. Sunday night dinners, business, new and old events are as much a part of the conversation as the recent loss of a family friend. How losing her changes my vision and understanding of my story—how I knew something was about shift—the sort of occurrence that could only happen upon a return to my roots.
Nestled in the beauty that is unique to each of us is the place where we are born. Perhaps (but maybe) in the physical sense, yet more likely, it’s spiritual. It holds a particular kind of power—at once briny and sweet, tender and forgiving. Around the family table we let down our guard, we eat and share stories and, if we are lucky, we become whole again.
With family, we often see ourselves reflected in one or the other. Perhaps it’s as mundane as a facial expression, or the flick of the wrist. Sometimes it’s in the remembrances. Like outings to the harbor for a cup of flour-thickened chowder, or harvesting mussels off the California coastline rocks at low tide in winter, or plucking opihi from a borderline treacherous Hawaiian cove. We each have our own take on that experience, a sense memory that is significantly different or the same.
I like to think that I have a little of my grandmother in me, the way she cooked and approached the art of gathering people around the table. And, the way she made a killer soup on a cold coastal evening after sending us out in the weather to play.
As a kid I spent a fair amount of time in my grandmother’s kitchen, following her lead when it came to preparing food and engaging people. Learning how to chop not one onion, but several, to make a large pot of soup, enough to feed the army of friends, family, and employees that she catered to nightly. She taught me how to saute the onions in butter and olive oil until they were translucent and lightly browned, before adding the other ingredients, simmering until the vegetables were just soft and the flavors melded. As with most of her cooking, she went at it simply, adding ingredients by the handful, tasting as she went, adding a pinch of salt and a generous grind of black pepper to finish.
And yet, with all the delicious meals my grandmother made, all the vintage trays of vegetable relishes she set out at the table, the saltines with cold pats of salted butter she served, the bowls of hearty soup on a chilly day—warm as love—when asked if it is possible, as MFK Fisher does in her slim book Consider The Oyster, that someone might have never enjoyed the pleasure of a Sunday night supper in winter, when crackers are served with a steaming, creamy oyster stew, I realize, I never had. Until now.
This delicious stew is hearty and full of flavor.
2 knobs of butter (about 4 tablespoons)
1 leek, finely chopped
1 Yellow Finn potato
2 cups whole milk or heavy cream
6 fresh oysters
Pinch of paprika
Salt and pepper to taste
Splash of sherry
Melt a healthy knob of butter in a saucepot and add 1 finely chopped leek, the white parts only. When the leeks begin to soften, add 1 peeled and diced Yellow Finn potato. Add 2 cups whole milk (or use heavy cream for a richer stew), a pinch of salt and a few thyme leaves. Simmer until the potatoes are just tender. Add no less than 6 freshly shucked oysters with their liquor. Cook, stirring on occasion, until the oysters plump and begin to curl around the edges, about 5 minutes tops. Add a pinch of paprika and freshly ground black pepper to taste, along with another knob of butter. Stir to combine, then pour into bowls and serve immediately. A splash of sherry to finish makes it very fine. Serves 2.