Memories on the half shell

Chincoteague, Moonstone, Bayou La Batre, Blue Point, Wellfleet, Malpeque ... this was what I knew of the sea as a child: the list of oysters on the menu board at Grand Central Terminal’s Oyster Bar. My father used to take my sister, Laura, and me there after our parents divorced.

By Heidi Jon Schmidt

Published: Wed 18 Aug 2010, 10:00 PM

Last updated: Thu 2 Apr 2015, 10:10 AM

I had never been close to my father and was shy during these meals. At the Oyster Bar, we didn’t have to face each other; we could sit side by side on barstools watching the waiters in their white aprons as they opened oyster after oyster, each with one deft flick of the wrist. These men had dignity and composure such as I’d never seen. They were giving a performance as much as preparing meals. We could watch, sip our oyster stew and count ourselves as having accomplished another visit.

The names of the oysters stayed with me — each one representing a distant, mysterious seaside community, where fogs settled over serpentine estuaries and men repaired their fishing nets around lantern-lighted tables at night. I felt that somewhere far outside the city (Pemaquid? Apalachicola?) there existed a briny, muscular life that had more meaning than mine, if only because it was aligned with the tides. I wanted to grow up and become part of a place like that.

Laura, two years younger than I and my exact opposite (she held the leg-wrestling championship at her local fire department the year I published my first short story), shared my fascination. I don’t think either of us understood how oysters grew or were gathered or anything really except that, as the poet Léon-Paul Fargue said, eating one is “like kissing the sea on the lips.” But we both gravitated coastward.

I went to Cape Cod, where I found Wellfleet much as I’d imagined it, with the same narrow streets angling down to the harbour, and fishermen idling their motors so as to leave no wake, preserving the delicate world beneath. I first kissed the man who would become my husband on the end of the wharf here in Provincetown. Our daughter is 16 now and a full-fledged local. When she was 3 she looked into an empty swimming pool and pronounced, “Low tide.”

Laura moved to Cedar Key, an island off northwest Florida. The Suwannee River empties into the Gulf of Mexico there, and the mix of fresh—and saltwater is perfect for shellfish. It has always been said that if a man had a small boat and a set of oyster tongs, he could feed his family until the hard times passed. During the Great Depression, Cedar Key lived off its seafood. And when the current economic downturn hit and the tourists dwindled, people again fell back on those old ways of earning a living. But now, with the oil spill following the recession, Cedar Key locals are finding they can no longer depend on the water’s abundance to get them through.

Though BP’s faulty well seems to have finally stopped gushing, the millions of barrels of spilled oil will pollute the gulf for a long time to come, and every change of the wind and current will pose a grave new threat to Cedar Key. Hopeful estimates suggest that within 10 to 20 years the oyster reefs in the gulf may rebound. But the way of life, its mystery and also reliability, the sense that a man has what he needs for his family there within his reach, will be gone.

I’ve been trying to persuade Laura and Jerry to move north. It’s true that even here, beyond the reach of the oil, oystering is tedious, heavy work. You have to wait for the low tides of the full and new moon to cull and harvest the oysters, all the while protecting them as best you can from their natural enemies: wind and weather, disease and predators like moon snails, whose tongues drill holes as perfect as a paper punch through shells so as to suck out the meat. And when winter comes, you pull the oysters — literally tons of them — out of the water and store them dormant in root cellars so they won’t freeze into the ice and wash out to sea with it in the spring.

But when you’re out on the water and the baby bluefish are jumping and the sea is like a bolt of silk changing colour under the sunset, you can feel that ancient, vital connection to the earth that lives in dreams and metaphors, and catches the imagination of children. It gives us hope and strength in ways we barely recognise but on which we’ve always relied.

Heidi Jon Schmidt is the author of the novel “The House on Oyster Creek”

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