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.

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.

Li Ming’s Dumpling Theater

Crafting Vietnamese Pork Buns in Li Ming’s Dumpling Theater

Sweet pork and taro root and red bean buns nestle prettily in their condensation slick bamboo steaming baskets arrayed in orderly progression along the cash-only take-out line at Li Ming’s Global Mart. The pillowy white dough swells magically around an anticipated sweet and savory interior. These buns are the edible essence of temptation, seduction, desire. And, they are the stars in what I now think of as Li Ming’s Dumpling Theater.

Phase 1: When Li Ming’s opened its doors in the barely converted cavern of a failed Circuit City store in a largely empty Durham, North Carolina, strip mall, jubilation filled my very being.  Like so many things of merit in my world, it was Becky who discovered the global mart and carried me there as a surprise. Ecstasy! Walking through the door the very first time, my eye turned to the iconic glassed Peking duck  cabinet – and to the side a stand of double-tiered commercial kitchen steamers, each aluminum tray packed with fresh buns and dumplings. Standing behind his wares, the dumpling counterman smiled, answered questions on the relative merits of each variety, and then plucked the chosen few from their steam-wreathed incubators.

Phase 2: Not too many weeks later, dumplings were on my mind (somewhere between musings on Eastern Shore of Virginia Shooting Point oysters and Cane Creek Ossabaw pig chorizo). Entering Li Ming’s, my first realization was of changes instituted at the dumpling counter. Bamboo steamers replaced the first aluminum containers; neatly typed placards identified buns and dumplings by type and ingredients. New buns had debuted, most notably a Vietnamese pork bun with a hard boiled egg inside. The familiar face of the counterman smiled; the buns met every expectation of delectation. What I failed to recognize, though, was that a grander transformation was in progress and those bamboo steamers were the harbingers of the emergence of Li Ming’s Dumpling Theater.

Phase 3: Less than a year after I first stepped through the doors of Li Ming’s Global Mart, the bun and dumpling counter evolved into theater. The walls painted bright orange provided a backdrop that threw every object, person, and action into vividly staggering high relief. This was an orange so aggressive that every detail of every gesture and thing in front of that background appeared digitally etched to the point of special effects. A black plastic rimmed flat-screen monitor mounted on the wall rotated images of artfully posed, tastefully modeled selections available in the bamboo steamers. Between the bank of steamers and the orange wall, the counterman, now clearly remade as dumpling master, presided over a steel table covered with trays of ingredients.

This was stage and cast, theater came next. The dumpling master in his red shirt reached to his right, and peeled up a four-inch round of risen bun dough. Evidence that the dough was mixed and risen on the stage was clearly evident in the stainless steel mixer and glass-doored rising chambers off to the left. Cradling the bun round in one surgically-gloved hand, the dumpling master (creating the Vietnamese buns that debuted only weeks earlier), scooped fresh pork sausage into the center. Then he added the hardboiled egg and a bit of cured Chinese sausage. Gently twirling the bun in his left hand, the dumpling master brought the sides to a teardrop point, delicately pinching the gathering closed in a flourish of balletic grace. I was stunned! There was no mystery here! This was a dramatic and clinical moment when the dumpling master formed the heart of the bun. These buns were the real deal, the authentic thing – not because they were any different or better, but because the dumpling theater invited witness. These were buns of legend and spectacle.

And, that is the problem, bearing witness to the forensics of authenticity. The dumpling master’s buns remain a triumph in my culinary imagination, and yet it seemed in that moment as if too much had been revealed, as if I could make claims to a different kind of ownership premised not on delight but information. Li Ming’s Dumpling Theater in its orange splendor and culinary performance overwhelmed the imagination with spectacle. Still, I purchased my dumplings, and standing discretely in the frozen food aisle took one out of its Styrofoam box and chomped down, happily. A single tear wet my cheek. That’s the problem with authenticity.

Retro Animal Aesthetics Return

Neese’s Country Sausage

Retro animal aesthetics return; the dirigible pig is back. Bricks of Neese’s Extra Sage, Hot, and Country Pork Sausage, packed in the supermarket cooler trumpet the family brand in a large red banner above the legend “Southern Style.” The pig engraved on the label balances on impossibly short legs – legs so dainty that they drive thoughts of ham from the imagination. The Neese’s pig  is a pig that is all about body – a mountain of culinary possibilities – with no regard for porcine intellect or mobility. The Neese’s pig portrait hearkens back to the rural fairs and agricultural competitions of the 1800s when the ideal hog on the trotter challenged the limits of even the most extreme Reubenesque body beautiful. These were pigs that couldn’t be and never were – and yet they persist, visualized standing stiff legged, proud snouted, anticipating the butcher’s knife and culinary resurrection.  These are sturdy, thoughtful pigs, corn-fed to the brink of corporeal fantasy. The question: “Why this pig now?” Desire (perhaps lust) of a certain sort I suspect as I reach for a brick of Extra Sage.

Black Dorset Pigs, American Agriculturist (1878)

Agricultural newspapers circulated with tornadic ferocity throughout the rural America of the 1800s. Correspondents submitted passionate meditations on rutabagas, manure, hay rakes, and horses. Recipes for ink made from figs appeared alongside columns on the judging standards for sweet potatoes. Engravings of seasonal cornucopia marked the months; plans for houses promised efficiency and convenience. Swine were a favored subject, depicted with an erotic yet tasteful fascination for fat and flesh. These were a lover’s pigs, round and roly-poly, zaftig and seductive. “There are two purposes for which pigs may be fattened,” wrote one farmer in 1845, “The one is to yield pork, which may be used either fresh, salted, or pickled, and the other is to produce bacon, which is prepared by salting and drying the flesh.” What of sausage? Or, liver mush or scrapple (labeled by one contemporary as “the apotheosis of the pig.”

Unattractive Swine, The Farmer’s Book (1846)

The Neese’s pig descends from a long pictorial genealogy that seeks to visualize the “tender, juicy, and lean” through images of the happy, portly, and docile. There was, of course, the bad pig! Wretched, wracked, and malevolent, the primitive “other”  threatened, a rangy, mean-spirited swine dangerous, defiant, beyond the reach farmyard civility. Ill bred creatures named Alligator and Landpike with “long peaked snouts, coarse heads, thin chests and narrow shoulders, sharp backs, slab sides, steep rumps, and meager diminutive hams, big legs, clumped feet, with the hide of a rhinoceros, and the hair and bristles of a porcupine, and as thick and shaggy as a bear’s.” These were not the pigs of the kitchen-as-boudoir, but creatures of arguably wild and satanic disposition – and not particularly tasty. And, their tails were not curly!

Berkshire Schwein, Amerikanische Agriculturist (1868)

The German-language edition of the American Agriculturalistestimated in 1868 that there were at least thirty-four million pigs in the United States – a number just about equal to the human population. The most prized and coveted of the porcine nation look pretty much the same as the Neese’s “Southern Style” Country Sausage mascot. These were pigs content with their lot or perhaps just oblivious to fate or maybe simply resigned to an entrée afterlife. In their graphic stillness they pose puffed and plump, emblems of gastronomic erotica – some seemingly smile come hither; others sneer with disdain. Contemplating the Neese’s sausage brick, frost misted deep in its refrigerated display, I hunger for the greater truths in advertising – longing for the beautiful, impossible pig rendered on the label, sizzling, mottled pink and white in an iron skillet, then browned and crispy and gone.

Suffolk Schwein, Amerikanische Agriculturist (1868)

Thinking about Spot (the fish)

A male spot from MAAT near Quinby, Virginia

The spot, a noble fish, still favored by Chesapeake cooks connected to place. Meade and Charles Amory of Amory’s Seafood in Hampton, Virginia, note that the spot was one of the five favored fish in the historic fisheries of the Chesapeake. Conversations with Danny Doughty and Mary “Mama Girl” Onley elicited recollections of fish “fried hard” and served with pan-fried apples, baked sweet potatoes, and “short bread” – the last a variation on baked dumplings.

The sign of the spot identifies Amory's Seafood, Hampton, VA.

The spot, claims our friend Pooh Johnston, got its distinctive markings from where Jesus touched the fish and divided them to feed the multitude. Even if it’s fiction, Danny remarked, it should be true. Fried spot would be tasty on this chill and rainy afternoon, but, alas, they have fled to warmer waters not to return until the coming summer. I’ll be ready when they return.

H.M. Arnold, proprietor of the Bayford Oyster House, describes salting spot (and other fish) for winter meals. Click to listen to  HM Arnold on salting spot and other fish.

The Passing of Laura Dennis

Laura Dennis, 2010

In the blue brilliance of a morning after a turbulent day of storms, Laura Dennis’s family and friends laid her to rest. One of the great cooks of the Eastern Shore, she was eulogized and remembered for caramel cakes, egg salad sandwiches, sweet potato pies, spoon bread, and how as a little girl during the Great Depression she pulled her wagon door-to-door through the streets of Cape Charles delivering her mother’s baked goods. She once sent me a slice of that renowned caramel cake and tasting it was a revelation. Of meaner spirit than Mrs. Dennis, I did not share.