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I Ate the Day Deliberately

This past Sunday morning, I sat at Scarlet Oak lamenting the death of Irish poet Seamus Heaney – my aunt, my mother and myself saddled up at the unusually quiet bar (so early were we, in fact, that my aunt shamelessly delivered their morning newspaper). We talked about life, my new job with Island Creek & our upcoming journey to the ‘aul Sod over Bloody Marys and a breakfast of champions for me – a half-dozen oysters. I heard news of his passing on the evening drive from Island Creek’s Brooklyn shop home to Rexhame Beach, and was struck if not a little unnerved by how deeply it affected me. Was it because he was a mere 4 years older than my own father who also endures and in turn enjoys a tender melancholy so familiar to me? Heaney’s “Postscript” could have easily been written from my father’s drafting table at Saquish. Was it because I lived in Ireland for some time and he was one of few who captured its elusive majesty? Or was it the oysters again (isn’t it always?)

In Heaney’s remembrance Friday in the Boston Globe, Kevin Cullen remarked,

” digesting the words of Seamus Heaney is akin to a plate of fine oysters: too many and you’ll miss the briny magnificence of those words” – though we’re not sure there’s such a thing as too many oysters in these parts – I saw his point and suddenly, a memory overwhelmed me.

I had my first oyster in Dublin in 2003 when I was 20. I had just moved there from Boston, and ventured to the Essex Street food market at Meeting House Square in Temple Bar. The market was cacophony for the senses – fresh dairy from Sheridan’s Cheese shop, Turkish coffee poured from an ibrik, bundled ducks hanging from stall frames like downy pulleys on a ship. At the very back of the market to the right of a gangly fiddler and his mad dog was a small canvas structure jutting haphazardly off the square. There were oysters – a whole lot of them, served with mini-pints of Guinness or champagne. Being 20, I figured any excuse for a late morning tipple was worth a try, though I hate to devalue the draw of the bivalves – I wanted to try them.

Really, being from New England, I needed to.

The stall was run by an old man and a much younger one, though both had faces like the thumb of a child left too long in a hot bath. The old one had a cap, the young one an impressive auburn beard that he pulled in alternating rhythm with his shucking. I approached, but the young one essentially screamed into my mouth “Oistirs!” – and I flushed crimson. This is a quality that endures a decade later, as I disclaimed my first and quite warm day on the Oysterplex and as the majority of chefs I encounter daily enjoy commenting upon. One chef at Grand Central Oyster Bar even recommended I buy better sunscreen.

I stepped up again, and he took my hand (I may or may not have fallen a little in love just then). I know now that what I held was the illustrious Ostrea edulis, the European flat- a rare oyster in our parts excepting a dwindling feral population transplanted to Boothbay Habor during the 1950s, as well as recently cultivated Belons also from Maine. At the time, it was just an oyster.

“Guinness or bubbly,” the beard warbled.

I went for the Guinness because, well – you just have to, don’t you?

I received a gruff “Cheers”, and put the shell to my lips imitating the rapturous head-tip he made as the oyster disappeared. At the first, it was an onslaught of slate and salt – like an arrow pulled from flesh and jammed into my mouth, followed quickly by all the delicate quivers – an earthy dense feeling, a mossy bloom, then a faint burst of sweet cream at the end. I pounded the Guinness (in fairness, it was my first oyster and the sheer notion of eating something live and raw was a lot to consider). After, I ate about a dozen more in consideration and not quite as many mini-Guinness**, watching the men slap their aprons into crates and shuck the shells like they were giving halos to angels. They told me lots of stories, and I told none – but it was when the older one started in with, ” Our shells clacked on the plates. / My tongue was a filling estuary, / My palate hung with starlight ” – that I knew they were no longer his words, but dozens of Heaney’s instead. Finally, I understood the poem, and it made me feel very lucky and alive.

**Lies – I drank a lot of Guinness

★ Hannah Grady runs the whirling gyre that is Island Creek’s Brooklyn shop.  She arrived on this island of misfit toys only recently, so please welcome her warmly and follow her on twitter: @grady_train ★

 

Our shells clacked on the plates.
My tongue was a filling estuary,
My palate hung with starlight:
As I tasted the salty Pleiades
Orion dipped his foot into the water.

Alive and violated
They lay on their beds of ice:
Bivalves: the split bulb
And philandering sigh of ocean.
Millions of them ripped and shucked and scattered.

We had driven to the coast
Through flowers and limestone
And there we were, toasting friendship,
Laying down a perfect memory
In the cool thatch and crockery.

Over the Alps, packed deep in hay and snow,
The Romans hauled their oysters south to Rome:
I saw damp panniers disgorge
The frond-lipped, brine-stung
Glut of privilege

And was angry that my trust could not repose
In the clear light, like poetry or freedom
Leaning in from the sea. I ate the day
Deliberately, that its tang
Might quicken me all into verb, pure verb.

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