Oyster Shucking Blocks

H.M. Arnold shucking oysters, Bayford Oyster House, Virginia (Winter, 2009)

When Francis Ponge poetically reprised the oyster in 1942, observing on its interior a “firmament of nacre,” he considered too briefly the cruel instruments of destruction that invaded the oyster’s heavens: “hold it in an open cloth and use a cheap chipped knife.” His vision originates from the gastronome’s perspective, whether lodged in kitchen or bistro or wartime longing, where the oyster shucked to the perfection of a laboratory specimen purveys aesthetic delight. But what of shucking blocks scarred by the shells of thousands in their final immobile moment, pinned to oak by practiced hands, bills nicked on an upright iron spud to create the opening that admits the stabber’s severing knife? To one side the stainless steel pail where hundreds measured out in gallons passed from this world into another of stews and fritters. The shucker’s block bruises the elegance of Ponge’s rhapsodic revelations evoking constellations composed of ocean flavor, hidden worlds, and sometimes a pearl. The worn and checked contours of the shucker’s block record invasions and violence stained deep in a patina of wood and liquid, the physical trace of remorseless determination and futile resistance.

Oyster Shucking Block, Bayford Oyster House, Virginia. Materials: oak, iron, and (after years of use) oyster essence.

The shucking block, like most effective lethal “old school” artifacts, is a simple thing. The oak block, much stained with the oyster’s viscous seawater effluvia, measures nine inches long by six wide by 3 ½ deep. There is no science to the dimensions of the block beyond vagaries of personal preference (the comfort of hand and wrist, the ergonomics of reach and bench) and so approximation informs understanding more richly than exactitude. A wrought iron spud driven into the block offers the blunt edge that sheers the oyster’s bill with an authoritative tap from oyster knife or culling hammer. That’s it. An oak block furnished with a single dull blade hammered from an old file or iron scrap. Within those narrow specifications there is room for innovation. Spuds driven into opposite corners distinguish right-handed versus left-handed adepts. The deep grooves hollowed out by abrasive shells pressed against unsympathetic wood in the last instant of life write epitaphs without words. The small variations of spud and bolt, the evidence of relentless hands, the stained trace of countless oysters etches humanity into the shucker’s block.

The oyster block at rest.

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Asked to define material culture

Asked to define material culture, I respond, the histories and philosophy of objects – all of them, tangible and imagined.

Fig bushes bearing breva figs.

Thunderstorms rolled up the Bay last night, broke ashore, sheeting lightening, sheering wind, sweeping rain. The morning, blindingly crystalline blue, tide surges through deep salt grasses setting railbirds chuckling madly, unseen.  In the fig orchard, a freshened breeze bellies the broad leaves, their spatulate, fingered profiles turned underside up to the sun. This day promises a fine year for figs.

Breva figs ripen; new buds appear.

Figs – plant, flower, and fruit – are curious things. The lightest of winters spared last autumn’s buds, now grown large and swelling. These are breva figs, the early ones ready for table mid June, ripening even as the tiny buds of a new season emerge in the crotch of new extended branch and leaf. The pregnant, leather-textured green skins radiate the brightest green, a hue deep and delicately translucent. Memory imagines the transition in coming months through the miserable dog days of summer when brightest green darkens to blackest purple, toast brown, and variegated lemon yellow. Figs, unpicked in August will blossom, crack open in the revelation that they are flowers not fruit.  Great humming black-and-mustard banded wasps, crowds of copper-edged, emerald-shielded June bugs, ants in their disciplined millions will feast. This brilliant morning, though, the breva figs and the new figs are objects of memory and futurity – or, more to the point, nostalgia and desire. These figs are the tangible artifacts of imagined realities; in the materiality of encounter they offer an arrested moment in the continuous flow of things in the world.

Butterflies and June bugs feast.

Figs speak to histories deeper than language – after all they are among the first trees named in Genesis, proof that they predate knowledge and were well-suited for the embarrassment of its arrival. And, fig, not cereal, culture stands now as the archaeologist’s index to the birth of ancient Mediterranean civilizations. Europeans imported figs to the Americas as exotica in the age of exploration and empire and as a contraband taste of home in the era of industry and flight. In the warm climates of the South and Caribbean, figs flourish without attention; where frost heaves earth, they must be pruned, cocooned in burlap, and buried against bark-rivening cold. Often a fig survives as the lingering remnant of an abandoned home site encountered in the woods on the margin of a field. Memorials of a sort that faithfully flower for families long departed, forgetful of its plenty, ignorant of its histories. Thus, the fig epitomizes nostalgia, the “longing for an imagined past.” And, the fecundity of figs nurtures desire, the longing for an imagined future. The jars of fig preserves, stored in our kitchen cupboard and remembered in recipes shared by home cooks, require copious measures of sugar, the overwhelming sweetness that flavors nostalgia and desire.

Considering breva figs in the orchard, I am captured in a moment of reflection about the florescent nature of things. In August I will see figs differently, bend their heavy branches to my hand, savoring the sensations of late summer flavors with pleasure.

A fig rescued from Hog Island after the Hurricane of 1933 thrives at the edge of salt marsh.