May 5, 2003

Fresh Oysters & Beer

by Ronald Wallace

MONDAY, 5 MAY 2003
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Poem: "Fresh Oysters & Beer," by Ronald Wallace from Long For This World (University of Pittsburgh Press).

Fresh Oysters & Beer

I'm lifting the oysters
up from the ice chips,
scooping the slippery pap
loose with a spoon,
dripping the sliver of lemon, the ripe
island of tabasco, and then
flipping it all up to my lip and sipping
it in, the rough texture of shell
on incisor, the limp liquidy tongue
poised for the pleasure
of soft palate and swallow, and
the following chilled schooner of beer.
Meanwhile, my rampantly
adolescent daughter, vegetarian and
teetotaler, is squirming, her frown
brown and decaying on her face.
She's eating her breadsticks
and lettuce, the tofu and lentils
she's smuggled in under her sweatshirt,
a bundle of grimace and disgust.
Can't we see, she screams, that's
a creature!
as the patrons of happy
hour turn toward us, and the taste-
fully well-endowed waitresses
in their wet T-shirts emblazoned
"I got the crabs at Cap'n Curt's"
stop to scratch their saucy behinds.
A creature! she shrieks, exasperated,
as Cap'n Curt sticks his head
out of the sizzling kitchen, rolls
the oyster-like whites of his eyes
at the fat bouncer in the far corner,
who gets up slowly and comes toward us,
as I flip a bill from my wallet,
and we exit, meek as vegetables,
me and my steamy daughter
just so much meat in his eyes.

Literary Notes:

Today is Cinco de Mayo, the Mexican holiday marking the defeat of French invaders at the Battle of Puebla in 1862. The Mexicans were ill-equipped and outnumbered two to one, but they caused 1,000 French casualties and forced a retreat to the Gulf Coast. The city was renamed Puebla de Zaragoza after the Mexican general that led the effort.

It's the birthday of James Beard, a great food writer and food lover, born in Portland, Oregon (1903). He was enormous, flamboyant, and fun-loving. He was a champion of American cooking. He trained three generations of American cooks, encouraged simple American ingredients, and spearheaded a culinary revolution in this country. Julia Child said, "In the beginning was James Beard." He wrote 23 cookbooks and many of them became classics, including the first serious work on outdoor cooking, Cook it Outdoors (1942); The Fireside Cookbook (1949); and Beard on Bread (1973). The James Beard Cookbook (1959) was the first best-selling paperback cookbook -- it told the cook everything, even how to boil water, and on the day of its publication stores and newsstands in New York immediately sold out of it. He said, "I believe that if ever I had to practice cannibalism, I might manage if there were enough tarragon around." He also said, "I don't like gourmet cooking or 'this' cooking or 'that' cooking. I like good cooking."

It's the birthday of philosopher Søren (Aabye) Kierkegaard, born in Copenhagen (1813) -- often called "the first existentialist" by people who know what "existentialism" means. He was a recluse. He lived on an inheritance and used it to publish his books, many of them under pseudonyms: Either/Or (1843), Philosophical Fragments (1844), Works of Love (1847). He was a big influence on writers such as Henrik Ibsen, Franz Kafka, and Albert Camus. He said, "The truth is a snare: you cannot have it, without being caught. You cannot have the truth in such a way that you catch it, but only in such a way that it catches you."

And it's the birthday of another great thinker: Karl Marx, born in Trier, Germany, five years after Kierkegaard, in 1818. With his friend Frederich Engels he wrote the Communist Manifesto (1848), and Das Kapital (1867), in which he predicted a revolution where the working class would overthrow capitalism and its supporters. His radical ideas got him into trouble wherever he went, and kept him moving around Europe. When he was 24 he edited a newspaper in Cologne, Germany, but he got into trouble with the censors and moved to Paris to escape arrest. He was expelled twice from Paris and once from Belgium. He settled in London and lived the rest of his life in exile from his home country. Marx's family lived in horrible poverty while he spent his days studying in the library. The children learned to lie to the creditors. "Mr. Marx ain't upstairs," they'd say.

Be well, do good work, and keep in touch.®




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