As the New Year arrives, I will have been on this planet eighty-five years. It’s a wonder to me as I think about it. This is a long time to spend in one place. Oh, I’ve moved around within its confines, but in the big picture I have to say my entire life has been lived on earth. Being an inveterate day-dreamer, my parents weren’t always convinced; they complained that I spent a lot of time elsewhere.
Robert Burns had it right. Auld lang syne are never forgot especially at anniversary times like holidays, birthdays, and of course, the end of the old year. Then the thought of old times surface.
Speaking of earth, I first moved to Maryland in 1973. I was thoroughly charmed by everything about the state: the tropical summer heat and humidity, the nettles in the bay as thick as barley soup, and the rolling hills in Baltimore and Harford counties. When I first come to the Eastern Shore, I arrived as John Smith did, on a sailboat. I sailed from Middle River to Fairlee Creek and spent the night there. The air was still, the water calm; it was a magical moment watching the sunset.
Maryland in size is around nine thousand square miles, medium in size compared to the other states. This is what I love about the state. I can go a hundred miles or so from just about anywhere in the state, and discover the grandeur of the rolling hills of Greenspring Valley, the grand old mansions along Maryland’s many rivers and the voluptuous tidal marshes of the Eastern Shore.
There were two reasons I had a romance going with Maryland long before I moved here. I was familiar and enchanted with Aubrey Bodine’s bay photographs, especially the skipjacks and watermen. When I was a boy, my grandmother told me tales of how great grandfather Merrill sailed down to the Chesapeake to purchase oyster seeds to plant in the oyster beds in Raritan Bay off Staten Island. Seeds indeed, I thought then. Do oysters grow like dandelions? Great grandfather Merrill harvested the oyster beds there until the early 1900’s when the beds were closed for fear of spreading typhus.
My family was deeply ensconced in New York’s legendary oyster trade, but I never tasted an oyster until the 1960’s when I was in New Orleans and ate at Galatoires. I had Oysters Rockefeller and thought I’d died and gone to heaven. After returning from New Orleans, that following New Year’s Day I went about making them. Ever since then I have prepared oysters at New Year’s. I use the recipe from The Joy of Cooking. I do it from scratch, shucking the oysters myself, melting the butter and adding spices.
The down side of aging is brought home to me around the oyster ritual. For over forty-one years I’ve been preparing this New Year’s oyster feast for select friends and family. Some have either died (not as a result of eating my oysters), moved away or grown infirm so they can’t travel any more. It’s the nature of rituals that they continue to go on while only the players change.
In the early years of the ritual, I discovered that an oyster does not yield its fruits willingly. I had no formal instruction in opening oysters. As with many hazardous tasks, patience is not only a virtue, but it can spare you a visit to the doctor.
One New Years Day, growing weary of shucking, I hurried to cut corners. Instead of cutting a corner, I cut my hand; I put the oyster knife through my palm. I bled so much that it looked like all the oysters were covered in cocktail sauce. It was my blood.
The small town of Joppa, on the Western Shore where I lived, had a resident physician whom I’d never met. I went to him He scolded me good naturedly for my carelessness and sewed me up. That’s when I learned a new way of dealing with a recalcitrant oyster. He suggested that if I had an ornery one, take plyers and twist the lip to break a piece from it. You can see where the opening lies and then insert the knife. It works, but for all the years I have been opening oysters, I’ve never learned to do it well. For the last several years during the Waterfowl Festival in Easton, I’ve watched a professional shucker open the shells with a nimble twist of the wrist in a way that the meat is extracted whole and never macerated – as I always manage to do it. I never quite got it.
I feel a primal affinity for the oyster. They cast a spell over me. To describe their exterior is like poetry– they have hard striated shells, like tile roofs, all covered with calcium ripples, like goose bumps. Sudden sharp edges arise here and there and can give the unwary a nasty cut. Like braille, running my fingers gently over the ruts and contours of the shells, conveys a message to me, a statement that’s thousands of years old. The oyster’s beauty is one of sharp contrasts; while roughhewn and rugged on the exterior, it’s interior is shaded with subtle swirls of pastel blue and finished in a smooth and unblemished surface as fine as silk. Their allure may be a genetic resonance in my DNA code since my ancestors settled on the Island in the late sixteen hundreds and fished the Island’s marshes and Raritan Bay well into the twentieth century. I think a way of life, if it’s not practiced anymore by descendants, is nevertheless etched into their sense of things.
Just why was it so late in my life that I discovered the oyster? It may be the way many of us were as kids. Then we thought anything fishy was gross, inedible. The oyster’s gelatinous meat may be delectable to the practiced gourmet, but for any kid or some serious meat and potatoes guy, at first glance oyster can seem super-yukky and slimy, far too suggestive of what issues from our nasal mucosa. Although I can’t remember, it seems reasonable that back then, for aversions like that, I wanted nothing to do with oysters until that life-changing day at Galatoires in New Orleans.
I suspect that’s why Jonathan Swift, the eighteenth-century satirist once put it this way: “He was a bold man that first ate the oyster.”
I’ll bet he never regretted it.
Columnist George Merrill is an Episcopal Church priest and pastoral psychotherapist. A writer and photographer, he’s authored two books on spirituality: Reflections: Psychological and Spiritual Images of the Heart and The Bay of the Mother of God: A Yankee Discovers the Chesapeake Bay. He is a native New Yorker, previously directing counseling services in Hartford, Connecticut, and in Baltimore. George’s essays, some award winning, have appeared in regional magazines and are broadcast twice monthly on Delmarva Public Radio.