M. F. K. Fisher Consider the Oyster (1941; 1954)
Oh M. F. K. Fisher, how I do love your writing.
I am not even particularly fond of oysters, yet MFKF makes me want to knock back a couple of dozen - despite knowing exactly what would happen should I do so - so seductive is her case for being 'broadminded' about that alarming mollusc "and its fine salt juices, more like the smell of rock pools at low tide than any other food in the world".
I was amused to read MFKF on the topic of "the smoked oysters people give you now at cocktail parties, excellent little shriveled things on toothpicks which make your mouth taste hideous unless you drink a lot, which may also make your mouth taste hideous." I prefer oysters raw, on the shell, which I think may have something to do with once having bravely consumed a repulsive canned smoked oyster on a camping trip as a child. In aside: as a result of camping, I also cannot stomach canned ham, certain varieties of cup-a-soup, dehydrated vegetables, 4WDs, and a large chunk of the Australian desert.
Consider the Oyster, like so much of MFKF's writing, is a quasi-memoir of her eating and cooking experiences, combined with a lively overview of - always from her quirky viewpoint - of the history and myths of oysters: you know, oysters and months with 'R', oysters and lust (linked with "an oyster's odor, its consistency, and probably its strangeness"!), bad oysters, oysters and pearls, and so on. Interwoven with this are recipes and descriptions of what could have gone into a dish MFKF ate and what would definitely go into a dish should MFKF turn her hand to it.
A good tartar sauce can be bought in a bottle, like several other things, but a better one can be made from this recipe, which is easy if you have an herb garden, and impossible, but still fun to think about, if you do not...
(This sort of sort-of-cheating is also a marker of MFKF's recognition that her readers may well be time-poor working women, like herself. She was ahead of her time).
MFKF is so good at investigating her own sense of nostalgia about food - why she feels like she does about certain foodstuffs, and whether it is possible to recreate what is essentially something between a feeling and a memory about a perfect dish - "an almost affectionate nostalgic liking". So, her quest to find a recipe that resembles a story that her mother told her about the perfect boarding school oyster loaf midnight feast (!), leads her a recipe that I think I might even dream about a little:
Cut off the top of crusty loaf of bread, and hollow out the center. Brush with butter, and put into a hot oven to heat through and toast slightly. While this is going on, coat medium-sized oysters with egg and crumbs, and fry them brown in deep or shallow fat. Fill the loaf with the oysters, pour melted melted butter over them, put on the lid which also has been toasted, and it is ready to eat. . . or to wrap thickly in wax paper and take on a picnic. A small loaf to serve two people is most convenient for serving.
Wow. Fried things inside bread and all soaked in butter. Marry me, MFKF!!
MFKF, despite investigating all of the best ways to consume the oyster, wants her reader to break the rules and to discover the magic of the oyster for herself. So, on wine bores who insist it is Chablis or nothing with oysters -
On the other hand, I have had Pouilly-Fuissé, various kinds of champagnes nature, a pink Peau d'Onion, and both bottled and open wines of Anjou with oysters in France, and whether they were correctly drunk or not, I was. Nobody knew it except my own exhilarated senses and my pleased mind, all of which must enter into any true gastronomic experience.
I suspect that MFKF's writing may not be for everyone (just as oysters may disagree with some). Occasionally I think, 'ooooh that's pretentious', but MFKF's wit and naughtiness make bearable her occasional inaccessibility. I think she'd be a terrifying dinner companion.
If you liked this... a good starting place is her Alphabet for Gourmets which can be read online at the Gourmet archive.