To Oysters with Love

"The food of thy soul is light and space; feed it then on light and space.  But the food of thy body is Champagne and oysters; feed it then on Champagne and oysters; and so shall it merit a joyful resurrection, if there is any to be." - Herman Melville, 1852

Melville is certainly not alone in his belief that oysters and Champagne are fit for eachother.  But why Champagne?  Since this is a relatively recent something or other, perhaps it can be attributed to the ever-growing scarcity and thus premium, placed on the bivalve.  We may do well here to clarify that we are speaking of raw oysters on the half-shell and extend the definitive to include the generic "dry white wine, preferably from France," even though for the first two hundred years of it's existence Champagne was hardly dry and even now not always exclusively white.  The point is, many people quite automatically think of Chablis or Muscadet or Champagne as the most suitable accomplishment to their beloved mollusks.

People have been eating oysters since we became "people" which was a very long time before people drank Champagne.  As evidenced by the monstrous shell middens discovered on most continents and older than the oldest farms, and therefore beer and wine, people have dined on oysters for millennia without too much care for what they drank with them.  

Ironically, since the advents of our favorite bubbly in the late 17th century the availability and quality of oysters had sharply declined.  In the early 17th century the coast of France, from Mont-St.-Michel, around her Northwestern-most tip and back down, to the Bay of Quiberon, had been declared an "inexhaustible" supplier of oysters.  Scarcely seventy years later the oyster population was virtually nil in some of those bays.  Let not the blame for this lay on some monks who knew how to throw a party.  Coincidentally, or perhaps not coincidentally, the First Industrial Revolution, the same creeping scythe that was forged to do away with the Melville's beloved "light and space" is probably responsible. 

Extreme population growth and various upgraded mechanisms paced demand far faster than supply.  From the Treguier bank to the Chesapeake Bay, the dragging without care for preservation left oyster bays denuded, some beyond the point of renewal.  The oyster population vanished in an alarmingly short period. Of the 126 oyster boats working in La Trinite, France in 1881, only 25 were still in business in 1890.  In Auray, a drag boat in 1878 was taking around 742 oysters in an hour.  By 1900 the hourly haul was down to 69.

The excessive demand and subsequent over fishing at the beginning of our modern time is consistent with the cultural sine wave of our species.  Over consumption and the exhaustion of food resources is, perhaps, in our own very nature.  Seneca wrote that the tendency in a wealthy (and zealous) society to over indulge is symptomatic of its ruin.  He asked: "Are you astonished at the innumerable diseases? - Count the number of our cooks!"  Like bored Heliogabalus ordering his hunters to Lydia to catch a Phoenix, we go deeper to the sea, faster to the thresher. Do not pluck the oyster, but rather scrape them all, hundreds at a time from their fragile beds.

What, if anything, does this have to do with Champagne?  This coupling originates in France where salty Bretons are their Belons sans anything but a glass of wine the same temperature as the oyster, which had not been on ice, but rather pulled from its shell cool from the sea.  Across the Channel, where oysters tended to be fatter and rounder, equally salty Englishmen downed theirs with ale; in New York City, a city porter did fine; Jack London liked his Sherry or a dry San Francisco lager.

MFK. Fisher was keen to note:

Oysters, being almost universal, can be and have been eaten with perhaps a wider variety of beverages than almost any other dish I can think of…and less disastrously. 

The point is: oysters are great with almost anything.  This is reflected in the customs and culinary traditions of all the varied places that oysters grew.  However, because of the catastrophic depletion of native beds and the virtual extinction of productive bays, the many charmingly idiosyncratic, terrior-driven pairings have disappeared.  Oysters became associated not with place but with class, and quite possibly a kind of placeless class. 

Transportation (with its added costs) drives up the price of oysters without adding any value, and in New York now, oysters are a luxury item.  It could be argued that the garish tiers and fruits de mer trays count as conspicuous consumption, a phenomenon whose participants seem to exude the opposite of good taste or sense.  Here is the quintessential example of cosmopolitan society given way to something homogenous and ultimately ruinous.  

Perhaps a healthy way to look at oysters as cuisine is to look far into the past.  The mollusk, no matter where it comes from, links us to the sea.  It is a shame that today she is no longer the cultural common denominator she once was.  However, every time I am lucky enough to eat one (or six or twelve) I feel connected to something ancient and unchanged.  It is a fair guess that my Damariscotta is not that different from the mild, subtle things that Maine's first people ate and left in their middens.  In this light, it seems oysters need no accompaniment.  "You are eating the sea, that's it," writes Rebecca Clark, "only the sensation of a gulp of sea water has been wafted out of it by some sorcery, and [you] are on the verge of remembering you don't know what, mermaids or the sudden smell of kelp on the ebb tide or a poem you read once, something connected with the flavor of life itself."

The sea is light and space, isn't it?  By enjoying our connection to that sea when we are having an oyster we might feed ourselves very well indeed.