‘Often the place and time help make a certain food what it becomes, even more than the food itself’
M.F.K Fisher’s Consider the Oyster was published in 1941 and then later compounded into a collection with five of her other works titled The Art of Eating. Consider the Oyster offers a heady meditation on the lives of molluscs and the many ways to eat them. Her style is personal and unashamedly subjective at a time when food writing was largely limited to the sphere of domestic science and the merits of a meatloaf. Whether she’s describing the many different wines she has sampled alongside oysters while in France (‘whether they were correctly drunk or not, I was’), or her mother’s midnight feasts while at boarding school, her writing is intimate and intoxicating. Below is an extract and recipe from Consider the Oyster that perfectly encapsulates Fisher’s inimitable style and reveals her unique ability to find and celebrate pleasure in the food memories of others.
There are stories that in their telling spread about them a feeling of the Golden Age, so that when you listen you forget all but the warmth and incredible excitement of those other farther times; oysters can be as fine as Ozymandias king of kings in them, and as unforgettable.
I shall remember always the mysterious beautiful sensation of well-being I felt, when I was small, to hear my mother talk of the suppers she used to eat at boarding school. They were called ‘midnight feasts’, and were kept secret, supposedly, from the teachers, in the best tradition of the 1890s. They consisted of oyster loaf. There may have been other things. Maybe the most daring young ladies even drank ginger beer, although I am afraid it was more likely a sweet raspberry shrub or some such unfortunate potation. Maybe there were cigarettes, and pickles, and bonbons. But it is the oyster loaf that I remember.
I know I shall never taste one like it, except in my dreams, nor will my mother . . . if she ever really did so. But I can see it, and smell it, and I even know which parts to bite and which to let melt against the roof of my mouth, exquisitely hot and comforting, although my mother surely never told me.
It was made in a bread loaf from the best baker in the village, and the loaf was hollowed out and filled with rich cooked oysters, and then, according to my mother’s vague and yet vivid account, the top of the loaf was fastened on again, and the whole was baked crisp and brown in the oven. Then it was wrapped tightly in a fine white napkin, and hidden under a chambermaid’s cape while she ran from the baker’s to the seminary and up the back stairs to the appointed bedroom.
The girls, six or seven of them because an oyster loaf was really very large, sat in their best flowered wrappers on the floor, while one of them kept watch at the keyhole and saw that no light flickered from her candle or the shaded lamp.
The maid slipped into the whispering, giggling huddle, and put down her warm bundle, and although she had been well paid was always willing to take a pocketful of the rich cookies the young ladies’ mothers sent them every week from home. Then she left, and the oyster loaf was unwrapped.
Cut off the top of a crusty loaf of bread, and hollow out the centre. 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 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.
For me at least, that recipe is at last the one I have been looking for. I can change it as I will, and even pour a little thick cream over the loaf, or dust it with cayenne, but basically it is right with my childhood dream . . . and quite probably it is much better than the one the young ladies ate in their stuffy lamp-lit rendezvous so many years ago.