Hog Island Rare Breed Sheep Guatemalan Barbacoa

There are times when it’s hard to discern where something begins and something ends. So it is with Hog Island Carne de Cordero Barbacoa. Still, every story has its start, for example, when David came over to paint the window frames our friend Robert had just crafted and set in the old brick walls of our house. The workmanship was beautiful and the installation was in its closing stages. The draughty winter days when frigid winds hissed through crevices in the rotten sills were banished. A sweltering August afternoon, thunder moaning on the horizon, and I was thinking of glittering ice crystals drifted on the beach in January and how snug we would be. “Hola,” David, sweat trailing on his temples, greeted me. He knows that other than food nouns and some necessary conjunctions he’s exhausted my Spanish vocabulary. I keep thinking to myself that I really need to learn Spanish. Still, I always try to make good use of those food nouns. Segueing to English, David asked, “How is your daughter? She is a hero in our family.”

s Hog Island Sheep at RB's

A Hog Island Sheep surveys its pasture.

Our daughter’s heroic stature arises from the fact that she located David detained in the truly labyrinthine depths of the U. S. immigration system. It seems that David, who has lived on the Eastern Shore for a good many years and learned the building trades from Robert, was driving with an expired inspection sticker. A county deputy pulled him over, found his papers not in order, and hauled him in. Federal jurisdiction took over and David was shipped to a detention facility somewhere in Pennsylvania. His wife, pregnant with twins, could not find him and turned to Robert, a soul defined by an extraordinary generosity of spirit, who turned to our daughter, a law student at the time, to locate and help in securing David’s release. She accomplished her tasks in short order and David and his family now reside secure in our community. This makes our daughter, as Robert says, a “folk hero” in our corner of the world and in the hearts of David, his family, and friends. “Hola,” I replied, “She’s doing great, working now as a public defender across the Bay.” “Remember us to her,” he answered, “she is family.” David paused, “You are family. We are having barbacoa on Sunday. You and your family must come.”

Now, barbacoa happens to be in my Spanish lexicon: “What kind?” David hesitated, looking for the word, “Sheep!” “Sheep! You mean like a grown-up sheep, like mutton?” “Si; yes, sheep, cordero.” Yow and double yikes! Carne de cordero is something I don’t come across too often and here stood David inviting us to a Guatemalan cordero barbacoa. “Where?” I asked. “At my sister’s house. You know, Maiana, I think.” Oh yes I do! (Maiana is my preferred source for homemade tamales and sweet potato empanadas. I’ve stood at her side in her kitchen and maveled as she wrapped the seasoned pollo or puerco in the masa harina laid on softened cornhusks and then stuffed the hundred or so I ordered into a steamer the size of a Florida sinkhole. What we don’t eat on arrival gets stockpiled in the freezer for culinary emergencies to which I seem unusually prone.) “I’ll be there,” abandoning any pretense to polite refusal, “but my family cannot come with me.” “You come,” David concluded, “you are family.” And, I went.

Hog Island Sheep barbacoa on the fire.

Hog Island Sheep barbacoa on the fire.

Maiana checks the barbacoa.

Maiana checks the barbacoa.

The barbacoa apparently began the night before when the cooks killed and butchered the sheep, dressing the meat behind the house. When I arrived, the only non-Spanish speaker on the premises, David greeted me along with his niece Jessica and sister Maiana. I was, as David reminded me “family,” introduced as such, and quickly absorbed into the manic chaos of overheated children racing around on a summer Sunday afternoon, the calm of older folks chatting in the shade, and the focussed energy of women cooking in the kitchen and the yard behind the house. A twenty-gallon pot of mutton-based sopa filled with vegetables bubbled adjacent to the picnic table that served for staging and serving. Out in the yard, another pot gurgled on a homemade grill of concrete block and old scorched metal over a wood fire stoked with chunks of scrap and windfalls. Jessica came over, offered to let me take a peek, and lifted the lid. “A taste?” “Oh, yes, please.” Wonderful! “Gracias.” “De nada, it is nothing.” Not where I come from.

Jessica then provided a tour of Maiana’s garden. David and Maiana come from Guatemala and Maiana takes great pains to keep her family’s culinary identity alive and vibrant. An arbor of chayote shaded the smallest children playing on the grass. Epazote flourished next to the hen house. Fruit trees including a fig or higo grew in an archipelago of scattered beds around the house. Jessica smiled, identifying the plants by name and their origins. Maiana, it turned out, is a seed saver known in local Spanish speaking circles as a memory-keeper for ingredients that evoke histories of distant origins and difficult passages.

s Hog Island Sheep Barbacoa Garcia Family Accomac VA (13)

Maiana organizes the servings.

Barbacoa, arroz, frijoles, tortillas, salsa, sopa - all words we need to know!

Barbacoa, arroz, frijoles, tortillas, salsa, sopa – all words we need to know!

The time for carne de cordera barbacoa arrived. I took a seat next to David at one of the half dozen church hall tables set up in the shade of carport. There is no serving line, rather the women organize and distribute the plates, bringing each diner a selection of sopa, frijoles, spiced arroz, and barbacoa. A sharp salsa and stack of homemade tortillas graces every table – and we go for it. David shows me the art of using a tortilla as a utensil – and, more importantly, the transformative power of a salsa. We eat with gusto. Across the table, the twins, not yet two, go at their portions with equal enthusiasm. No children’s table here; no child helpings. Replete, David and I settle back and talk about family and friends. His pastor joins us and asks if I attend church. He’s thoughtful and listens. We exchange perspectives and share slices of cold watermelon. And then it hits me, “David,” I ask, “where did you get a full grown sheep?” “Robert,” he says. “Robert?” “Robert.” “Is this a Hog Island sheep?” “It is a sheep from Robert.”

Laura, one of the twins.

Laura, one of the twins.

Now, I happen to know that Robert and his wife Jen up until that moment were the keepers of Hog Island sheep, a rare breed relocated in the 1970s from one of the Eastern Shore of Virginia’s offshore barrier islands. The flock from which those sheep descended were left to wander and forage the island after the last of the human residents fled the aftermath of hugely destructive hurricanes in 1933 and 1936. The island refugees took their possessions and even their houses to the mainland, resettling in fishing villages: Willis Wharf, Oyster, Quinby, Wachapreague. Some, Randolph Higby for instance, dug up treasured figs and grapes, transplanting them to new gardens where they still flourish. The sheep, though, they left behind.

Following the acquisition of a significant portion of the island by the Nature Conservancy, the decision came down that the island should be conserved as a largely untouched natural habitat. Bad news for the sheep who had resided there for generation upon generation. Sheep roundups followed and in time the Hog Island sheep were relocated to the mainland. Rare breed keepers acquired ewes and rams with the intent of preserving the breed and as a result substantial flocks gambol at Mount Vernon and Colonial Williamsburg. Robert and Jen, however, possessed among the very last flocks of Hog Island sheep on the Eastern Shore – and as far as I knew this was all the sheep they husbanded. “This sheep is from Robert?” I asked. “It is from Robert,” David said, and he continued, “This is the second time Robert has given us a sheep, but the first time when we went to get it, he was sitting on the ground by the fence with water on his cheeks. He was looking at the sheep – maybe it was Bertha.” I lean closer and David elaborated, “Robert, he said to me, ‘I can’t let the sheep go. I’ll pay you to leave her here.’ ‘Robert, she is already your sheep. You cannot pay me for a sheep that is yours.’” I imagine the scene. Robert having second thoughts; David arguing the illogic of the moment. In the end, reprieve was granted. In fact, I had seen the sheep grazing in their pen just a day or so ago. But then things changed: Robert gifted David the sheep and here we were eating Hog Island Rare Breed Sheep Guatemalan Barbacoa.

Dining under the carport.

Dining under the carport.

As I made my farewells and thanks to David and his family, I asked for a bit of leftover barbacoa. Two thoughts were on my mind. First, the source of the sheep needed to be verified with Robert; second, the barbacoa demanded sharing with my beloved friend David Shields who was deeply immersed in the search for the heritage foods of the American South and overseeing their listing on the passenger manifest of the Slow Food Movement’s Ark of Taste. One of the questions the Ark of Taste nomination form poses, sensibly enough, is how do things taste. When it comes to Hog Island rare breed sheep, this presentss something of an issue. But, then I had the answer in the cooler in the back of the car. My first stop, though, was Robert’s house. Verification was on the evidential menu.

Turning off of Church Neck Road into Robert and Jen’s drive that led to the back door and Robert’s woodwright’s shop, I came to a stop under the big tree that they festoon each Christmas with gigantic illuminated ornaments fashioned from mashed crab pots. Robert, accompanied by his rambunctious dogs Bear and Blue – both rescues, stepped from the porch into the shade. “How’s it going?” Aflame with curiosity, I skip the pleasantries, and get to the point, “Robert, did you give David one of those Hog Island sheep?” “I did. I gave him three, two six year olds and an eight year old.” “Did you know he was going to have a barbacoa?” “I did,” Robert answered, “but I forgot…and I don’t think I would have gone.” “The rest of sheep, the little ones, are all down at Capeville,” Robert quickly added, assuring me that there were Hog Island sheep still living near their ancestral home. “Do you want a taste of barbacoa?” I offered in reply. “Sure,” Robert took a pinch out of the freezer bag I held out. Chewing thoughtfully, “This is really good! I thought it would be stronger.” “Do you want some for you and Jen?” “No thanks, I think I’ve had enough.” Later I learned that when Robert told Jen that he had sampled the barbacoa from their former sheep, she looked into his eyes, giving him that gaze of heart-heavy sadness trimmed with a soft sigh of disgust, and asked simply, “How could you?”

I called David Shields, my epicurean comrade in arms, that evening, “Dave, guess what? I’ve just come back from a barbacoa up the road where we dined on Hog Island sheep Guatemalan style!” There are not too many folks I can cold call with this sort of news and get an informed response, “What?” “I ate Hog Island sheep barbacoa – and I have some for you to sample and answer that taste question on the Ark of Taste nomination.” “That’s a rare breed sheep,” followed by, “Well, what did it taste like?” “It was very tender and not at all strong in the way that I associate with mutton – and the salsa added to the shredded meat gave it some zing.” “Bernie,” Dave responded, “when the fellow who ate the last passenger pigeon was asked about its flavor, he responded, ‘fatty and herbaceous.’” Dave can’t sucker me with that kind of leading comment, “Neither,” I said, “more like delicate and rich – not like chicken.” I paused, “Do you want me to save some for you?” “Absolutely! How will it get here?” “You have to come to it.” “What can I bring to complement the barbacoa?” This was the question I’d been waiting for, knowing that Dave was deeply committed to the restoration of Carolina Gold Rice that grew in fields favored by rice birds or bobolinks. Small birds, they once swarmed the fields, ravaging the crop. Now they’re protected. I paused before answering, then said, “How about a lovely rice-fed bobolink pie?” “Could be a problem,” he answered, “but it’s possible.” “How possible?” “It won’t be a big pie.”

On the perils and parables of gluttony

Thunder and lightning ratcheted on the horizon last evening – and then rain broke loose in torrents, flooding the air with drops so large and thick that the trees along the creek bank vanished behind a silver curtain. As hard as it poured down, it didn’t rain very long and then the clouds lowered away to the east and a rainbow ignited with sunset’s fire.

Westerhouse Creek after the storm.

Westerhouse Creek after the storm.

At water’s edge, wind-driven shoals of dead fish washed into shoreline banks of reeds. A few flipped weakly further out, clearly in their fading moments. “Bunker,” I thought, “what killed them?” Just yesterday menhaden trawlers directed by a spotter plane dragged the deeper waters off the sandbars along the Chesapeake. Hardly sporting, but then it’s not that kind of fishery. Maybe these bunker were casualties of clumsy seining and rent nets. Or, maybe the storm killed them.

Drowned bunker washed into the reeds the morning after.

Drowned bunker washed into the reeds the morning after.

I write to my friend P.G. at the Virginia Institute of Marine Science in the seaside village of Wachapeague (also home to the famous Cake Wheel – but that’s another topic altogether), reporting, Following the storm tonight, I went down to look out over the creek and discovered a significant fish kill. I have no idea what would have happened, but they weren’t there before the storms. They looked like bunker, but I’m not sure. The storm here didn’t last long, but it rained so hard you couldn’t see the creek from the kitchen window. No lightning strikes.

P.G. replied, If it was indeed bunker then it was likely a temporary dissolved oxygen issue.  The scenario you describe is actually fairly common this time of year, although it happens in different creeks from year to year. As you know bunker are schooling fish and will often enter small creeks in high numbers.  Sometimes they can consume all the oxygen before the school can re-orient and hit open water. However, this seems more prevalent during/just after storms. A small creek like Westerhouse can actual ‘turn over’ like a pond when a deluge of colder rainwater is introduced. These waters will create a boundary that doesn’t mix for awhile which cuts off the bottom half from being oxygenated at the surface. A school will quickly deplete the available oxygen. You will still likely see dead fish, but let me know if you see numbers of sick but alive fish.  You may see some lethargic near the surface trying to ‘gulp’ air…again indicative of ongoing dissolved oxygen issue.” This is one of the traits I most admire in P.G., an ability to cut to the chase on the topic of dead fish, explain things clearly, and remain accessible.

P.G.’s note set me to thinking. I replied with more observations and questions, The kill was quick and I’ve seen not seen any more dead fish this morning. Will this kill the other animals in the creek: crabs, shellfish, silversides, etc.? Do you want me to save and freeze a couple of the dead fish for the lab? P.G. diplomatically declined the offer of dead fish (and by now the crabs and other scavengers had been after the bobbing buffet): Typically the other living resources are not damaged.  The dissolved oxygen issue is usually quite temporary…long enough to kill the fish with high metabolism, but short enough that any benthic critter including bivalves hardly notice it.  The low dissolved oxygen ‘cloud’ is often highly associated with the water in and adjacent to the fish school.  Smaller fish seem to be able to move to areas a short distance away and ‘chill out.’  Crabs can sometimes get caught in the mix…they are quite sensitive to low dissolved oygen, but again only those basically in the vicinity of the fish.  I also think menhaden behavior probably plays into it as well as they seem to act quite agitated and probably increase their oxygen demand right at the time it would be well served to limit it by inactivity.  Nature of that species, I believe.”

I’ve seen these fish in action on late afternoons when high tide deepens the water around the dock. They flash and flip, bolts of bright and animate light pursuing plankton. Bunker with their wide mouths are voracious. I suspect they chase smaller fish, but P.G. gently corrects me, “Looks like bunker…if you look into that large mouth you should be able to see combs on the gill arches…even though the gaps look big, as a unit they do effectively filter out the large zooplankton and the large mouth funnels loads of water through.  Also, there will be an absence of teeth.” Driven and blinded by gluttony, the bunker (apparently thinking very small thoughts) let this stormy evening lead to the occasion of their own undoing. The unrestrained pursuit of appetite exists as its own kind of damning pride. Now, I don’t think of these fish as sinful in the sense of spiritual failure. It is conceivable that the only remorse a bunker might entertain is that it had eaten all the plankton and no more were to be had – but I doubt it. A bunker’s gluttony it seems is of the unthinking variety. They school into the creeks, ravage their micro-snack-size brethren, and move on. And, then this evening it rains in rivers, the creek layered salt-water oxygen-rich and rain-water oxygen-bereft inverts. In frantic flight bunker burn through the remaining oxygen and, en masse, drown. It’s too late, the tide rains bunker from the bottom up. “The wages of sin,” I’ve heard, “is death.” Looks as if the dead bunker are a case in point.

Wondering what to do with the bounty of dead bunker on my doorstep, I discern black clouds in the gentle arc of the horizon and hear thunder foreshadowing rain.  Could be another bad day for bunker – but an instructive one for folks inclined to parables on sin and salvation.

Rainbow over Westerhouse Creek with drowned bunker bobbing in the tide. Raindrops dab the photograph.

Rainbow over Westerhouse Creek with drowned bunker bobbing in the tide. Raindrops dab the photograph.

Max Huang’s Last Bao

A Max Huang's Chinese Pork Bun

A Max Huang’ Pork Bun

“There are two times in the course of his life when a Southern man cries,” my friend Dave Shields pronounced some years past as we walked the grounds of the Citadel listening to the howls of upperclassmen humbling first year cadets on the opening night of a new academic year. A hint of autumn infused the evening breeze. “And,” I asked, “they are?” Dave stopped, turned, and pronounced, “When his dog dies and his team loses.” Now, I know this isn’t true. The third occasion arises when his favorite Chinese bun and dumpling stand closes its doors and the big steel and woven bamboo steamers are stored away. Max Huang is shuttering the Li Ming Dumpling Theater and I am bereft if not inconsolable.  Sure, his thriving bun business in distant Charlotte will continue and flourish – but a grim culinary darkness shadows Durham and Chapel Hill.

Max Huang gave me the bitter news a couple of weeks back, gesturing unceremoniously to a chalkboard announcement, “We will close at the end of February.” “This year?” I asked; “This month,” he replied. “No!” “Yes.” Sigh. We changed topics: “I need some shrimp dumplings and few Chinese barbecue pork buns to keep me alive on a drive to the Eastern Shore of Virginia. And, maybe a red bean bun just to be on the safe side.” “What takes you there?” he queried. “Oysters,” I responded, “I grow oysters and it’s time to go fluff them up a bit, check on their general welfare, and eat a few to give a sense of meaning and panic to their rock-like lives.” “Oysters,” Max brightened, “I love oysters.” “I’ll bring you some,” I promised and headed for the door. I inhaled the first bun before the car made it out of the parking lot. The others, huddled in their Styrofoam box, weren’t far behind. I was really glad that red bean bun was in reserve.

Max Huang at li Ming's

Max Huang at li Ming’s

Three days later and true to my word, I phoned Max from the road on the way back home and told him that I had his oysters. We met in the Li Ming parking lot and I handed him a sack of fifty that I’d gotten out of the icy creek that morning.  A great deal of oyster gangstering goes on in parking lots – but then that’s another story that involves state troopers, shotguns, pouring rain, traffic stalled on a rural highway, and a school bus full of horrified vacation-bound students. In exchange, he offered a selection of buns on my next foray to the market. I was not slow to accept.

Max Huang's Roast Oysters

Max Huang’s Roast Oysters

When I visited the market on Saturday, Max was there and provided us with a lovely array of Chinese barbecue pork buns, Vietnamese buns, shrimp dumplings, and shao mai. He then showed us a photograph of the pan-roasted Chinese oysters he’d made. I asked, “How did you become a bun maker?” And, the outline of a story emerged that placed the buns neatly arrayed in the bamboo steamers in a greater tide of twentieth-century events. Max Huang learned his art from his father, a master bun maker in Taiwan where the family settled in the wake of the Chinese out migrations associated with the communist rise to power. Max’s father acquired his skills from his father who hailed from the Shandong Peninsula in northeastern China across from the Koreas and who, prior to Chairman Mao’s Long March and the communist seizure of private industry, ran a family pharmaceutical concern. The family business forcibly forfeited to the state left Max Huang’s grandfather on his mother’s side in search of a new livelihood – and buns, a traditional and popular Shandong delicacy, offered the family, dispossessed and desperate, an option. In time, the family fled to Taiwan and then in the 1990s resettled in the United States, establishing themselves in North Carolina. Three generations on, Max Huang sculpts the descendants of those first buns at his take-away counter in Li Ming’s Global Mart. The buns, Max observes, are not those his grandfather and father made. They are fancier now, stuffed with sweet and savory fillings.

Max Huang's Business Card (detail)

Max Huang’s Business Card (detail)

Max Huang’s narrative offers a genealogy in which each bun in the big bamboo steamers refers back to its ancestors in a lineage forged through repetition, terroir, and communion. Max rolls out the fine white dough, pressing it into uniform rounds. He places the filling in the center, folds in the perimeter, and then, with a deft turn of his hand, pinches and seals the top. The buns rise. Then, packed together, they steam, their fragrance luring shoppers to Max’s stand for a fresh barbecue pork, bean, or taro bun. But, now that I know something of their history, the buns make me think differently about the things I eat and what I think I know. Each of the buns that Max skillfully fashions remembers all the buns he has made and all the buns his father and grandfather have made in their long journey. The repetitive actions of mixing, kneading, rolling, stuffing, folding, twirling, rising, and steaming operate in an sequence that always refers back to origins and simultaneously looks forward to prospects. Terroir, the taste of place, maps a different territory in my appreciation of Max Huang’s bun bakery – historical time. Max Huang’s steamed buns and dumplings don’t taste of place in the classic sense of wine or cheese or oysters. They taste of great events experienced at the most personal level and that is their communion. When I eat one of those dumplings, I consume some small and intimate part of Max’s history and it becomes a part of me and I of it. I am reminded, indeed I am, in some measure, made a part of Max Huang’s family history. Huang’s buns recall deeper narratives of Southern loss and redemption, of awareness and reconciliation sometimes achieved too late, of how this place welcomes the displaced and makes them its own. Max Huang takes his last bao; tears drool down my cheeks. Maybe Charlotte is not so distant.

On Irony and Thornton Dial’s “Everybody’s Welcome in Peckerwood City”

Irony is a marvelous thing, especially when it appears in unintended situations. One online dictionary defines irony as “The expression of one’s meaning by using language that normally signifies the opposite, typically for humorous or emphatic effect.” That would be intended irony. But, then, there’s the irony of accident that tells us much more about ourselves than we might want to know. I’m thinking of situations that reveal values and beliefs so deeply rooted that they go unremarked and in that silence mold how we experience and understand the world around us. Sometimes we say exactly what we mean in ways so subtle that we fail to sense the irony in our actions. So it is with the installation of Thornton Dial’s sculpture Everybody’s Welcome in Peckerwood City at Atlanta’s High Museum, the last stop of the travelling Hard Truths exhibition.

Peckerwood City 01 s

Everybody’s Welcome in Peckerwood City – paneled side. Courtesy of the Souls Grown Deep Foundation.

Peckerwood City 02 s

Everybody’s Welcome in Peckerwood City – weathered wood side. Courtesy of the Souls Grown Deep Foundation.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Completed in 2005, Everybody’s Welcome in Peckerwood City presents a two-sided (truly janiform) sculpture that offers a powerful commentary on the paradox of social identities that prejudice and convention have simultaneously kept separate and conjoined. Dial’s sculpture stands almost eight feet tall and is composed of a “front” and a “back” – and this where our trouble begins. One side of the work consists of a paneled wall with a centrally placed door framed by columns capped with the suggestion of a pediment. A painted doormat placed in front of the closed opening (significantly without hinges, bell, latch, or knob) bears the single word, “Welcome.”  That would be part of Dial’s intended irony. The opposite side of the sculpture is composed of weathered and distressed boards, wire, and rusted tin. There is no door here, but two woodpeckers (known in the African-American South as peckerwoods, a word that shoulders its own perjorative burden) flutter against the raw wood ensnared in twisted metal fencing. We can imagine the staccato hammering of their bills against wood, futilely banging their heads against a wall without portal.

So, here it is. The two sides of Peckerwood City – one stiffly formal and uninviting, the other rough and patched together with found materials: a door denying access backed with a wall without a door. There is no front or back to this sculpture – just two sides that speak to connections marked by lack of access. If institutional, economic, and political power defines the “front”, then the paneled side of Everybody’s Welcome in Peckerwood City is indeed the forward face. But, if the struggle for admittance, freedom, and equal opportunity are the primary power, then the face with the ensnared peckerwoods is the “front.” Dial forces us to consider where we locate agency and power through the juxtaposition of two historical social realities. The irony of who and what is welcome is obvious, but the conflicted depths to which that irony marks us all requires a good deal of reflection.

Peckerwood City High s

Everybody’s Welcome in Peckerwood City – installation at the High Museum,

Context may not be everything, but it sure accounts for a lot. We arrive at the unintended irony of the installation of Everybody’s Welcome in Peckerwood City at the High Museum. Dial’s sculpture is positioned on the second level of a three-story installation that overall provides viewers ample room to stand back, contemplate, and absorb the art Everybody’s Welcome in Peckerwood City is placed in the gallery in such a way that the visitor can see the paneled, the white, the formal, the powerful “front” elevation in its entirety. To see the opposite “back” black side, it’s up to the viewer to find their way around the work without label or instruction. There’s no opportunity here to stand back and comprehend the rough, brown, worn, weathered, patched together elevation straight on and in its entirety. Instead, the view of the peckerwood face is hemmed in, fragmentary, oblique, and, by physical constraint, intimate – and it emphasizes this face of Dial’s sculpture as the “back.” The installation presents a stunning amplification of the work’s message – and, based on a lack of wall text, delivered seemingly without critical consideration.

Everybody's Welcome in Peckerwood City - installation at the Mint Museum.

Everybody’s Welcome in Peckerwood City – installation at the Mint Museum.

Everybody’s Welcome in Peckerwood City could have been positioned in other ways as it was at the Mint Museum in Charlotte, North Carolina. For example, if the work were rotated 180º, it would foreground the struggle and in doing so reveal the insistent voices that test the limits of power, the sound of fists on a non-existent door knocking for entry. Or, if the work were rotated 90º in the same space, we could engage our troubled past and present from a perspective that cements two Southern histories in one creative gesture and one narrative where we can never back off enough to see the entirety of it all. But, in this installation there is a white front and a black back—and no matter how innocent that decision may have been, it speaks quietly and unequivocally to tensions in our unresolved national histories, provoking us to consider who holds power and who doesn’t. Now, that’s an unintended irony that instructs us all.

Reconnoitering Thanksgiving

Reconnoitering offers one of the most joyful aspects of Thanksgiving – second only to the excitement of lighting off the burn pile and then realizing that the wind picked up and the flames are kissing the top of a nearby pine. Everybody runs around looking for a garden hose to cool the tree. My 86-year-old mother, Lucy, and I simply watch as a branch ignites and then flares out. I never liked that tree much – and out of stubbornness, it survives the threatening inferno. You have to engage potential disaster to sweeten the day, I guess.

Josh Nottingham with sweet potatoes at Pickett’s Harbor.

The loop that runs from one end of the county to the other begins on a brilliant blue-sky morning with a stop at Pickett’s Harbor Farm where Josh Nottingham meets me with a selection of sweet potatoes, featuring the locally favored Hayman. The field crew pulls up in a farm-tagged pickup loaded with broccoli, cauliflower, and red and green cabbages. Josh, his mother Tammy, and I talk of crops, markets, family, and books recently read.

Friends at A&J’s Meat Market in Cheriton.

Next stop: A&J’s meat market out by the main highway leading into the village of Cheriton. James Elliot produces some of the best old school sage sausage to be found anywhere on the planet. Browned, crumbled, and mixed with whole hominy (yellow and white), James’s sausage is the cornerstone of the stuffing that goes into the fresh turkey he also provides. His manifest knowledge of pork provides tangible proof that art resides in the soul of everyday life.

Dinner rolls in progress at Kate’s Kupboard.

Onward to Bellehaven and Kate’s Kupboard for sweet potato biscuits. Sweet potato biscuits are the subject of much partisan debate. Some gourmands advocate for Tangier’s with little bits of sweet potato visible in the biscuit; others argue passionately for Charles Thain’s served with a bit of salt ham and jam. The Yellow Duck coffee shop in Exmore offers home-baked sweet potato biscuits that exert a real presence at the table – and they are good. But it’s Kate’s for Thanksgiving. Her biscuits are perfectly sized, orangey yellow, not too sweet, and the perfect vehicle for fried oysters and bacon. When I arrive midday, Kate’s is in full swing with Kate and her assistants kneading dinner rolls and racks of just-from-the-oven breads cooling on rolling racks. The scent of baking bread always raises the questions of why there isn’t a perfume – say, Eau d’Boule – the engenders pure delight.

Tom and Ann Gallivan shucking Shooting Point Salts at Chatham Winery.

Down to Bayford Oyster House where I hand H.M. Arnold an array of smoked eel and fatbacks packed in oil, freshly smoked eel rolled on parsley and garlic, and a jar of fig chutney. Late last summer, H.M. and I fished together for the fatbacks in Nassawadox Creek, and he set aside a dozen fat eels from his catch in September. The promise of his meeting them again all smoked and preserved was my bond – and it’s a bargain happily met. Up the hill, Tom and Ann Gallivan’s crew is noisily culling oysters for the holiday trade. Tom, off fishing, left us two bags of Hog Island Bay clams and a few dozen Shooting Point Salts oysters in the walk-in cooler. Fig chutney, a jar of smoked eels, and a freshly smoked bluefish replace the shellfish.

Wines of Chatham Vineyard at the early November wine and oyster tasting.

One the road again: past Chatham Winery where just two weeks earlier we participated in a wine and oyster tasting for 200 folks. Several bottles of Mills and Jon Wehner’s excellent 2009 steel chardonnay chill in our smokehouse fridge. The thought of those bottles drives me onward where we’ll savor all the things collected and toast the people and place who define our corner of the world. The vineyard, gone dormant in the early days of winter, marches its skeletal ranks of November vines forward to the promise of a warmer season. I drive on, spurred on with no small excitement by the fact that Maiana and Jessyca G. are delivering homemade tamales (pork and chicken) along with sweet potato empanadas. Their voyage to this corner of the South has not been the easiest – but they are here as a family and looking to the future. “What are you having for Thanksgiving?” I ask Maiana. “Turkey and tamales,” Jessyca translates. We are on the same page! They drive into the settling darkness and I head back indoors to get after a sweet potato empanada – the new sweet potato biscuits that brings us all together.

Maiana and Jessica with tamales and sweet potato emapanadas.

Storm Pairings

Hurricane Sandy on the move

The thing about storms is the weirdness they occasion. A hurricane approaches with assured ferocity, the mid-Atlantic coast shudders in a frisson of near-erotic anticipation, and the rush is on for the holy trinity of disaster commodities: milk, bread, and toilet tissue. Now, of course, schismatic voices advocate for other trinities like bottled water, generators, and gas – or some other more radical constellation of necessities that might include duct tape, shotgun shells, and a chainsaw. It’s a sectarian/partisan world. It doesn’t matter if it’s a hurricane, blizzard, or severe cold front breeding a tornadic frenzy that threatens, the first stop is shopping for survival goods – milk, bread, toilet tissue. Clearly, the weather is not only the world’s greatest unpaid actor, it is also the compelling infomercial shill inciting the purchase of extraordinary quantities of croutons-waiting-to-happen.

Our list veers storm-like in another direction.

Number one: wine. I’m sure others have written on this topic, but the dilemma of wine pairings for potential disasters receives too little attention. For a late October storm, part hurricane/part northeaster, I look for well-structured reds with rustic, yet delicate notes of windblown leaf mold, fallen apples and pomegranates, and tide-churned marsh mud. A powerful bouquet with the architecture of an armageddon; the kind of wine that went with the demolition of the Tower of Babel; old world wines that speak to millennia of unresolved conflict – and definitely not one of those new world, new age, over-extracted West Coast or Oz wines. You can find great vintages to accompany the end-of-the-world-as-we-know-it on the apocalypse preparedness shelf of any respectable wine shop.

Number two: roasted chickens. Almost every grocery store with a working U.S. military surplus rotisserie markets roast chickens. Confronting the potential devastation of sustained twenty-five mile an hour winds, we lay in a supply of two and, if it looks like the End of Days, three roast chickens. The last thing we want to do, having delved into the cataclysmic cellar and uncorked a good bottle of disaster wine, is cook. Glass in hand, this is the moment to survey the mayhem of downed leaves and twigs (unless something really bad has happened and it’s trees snapped and uprooted, cars smooshed, and roofs torn off, in which instance we go out with a bottle and two straws). Knowing that a roast chicken along with some pre-roasted potatoes with baby bella mushrooms (talk about a marketing scam) sprinkled with rosemary, black pepper, and sea salt awaits us at home base offers the greatest consolation.

Number three: a plan for capitalizing on frozen goods that thaw in the wake of power loss. Admittedly, power fails in the wake of really, really, really bad atmospheric and geologic events, for example a rain sodden crow landing on a transformer – and sometimes the lights go out for more than 24 hours. To deal with the potential power outage induced tsunami of delectables that include eels, soft crabs, blackberries, pre-cooked sweet potatoes, and more, we maintain a collection of recipes suitable for the grill and smoker – and a guest list of fellow survivalists who are likely to bring a good bottle as a contribution in their hour of greatest need.

Soundscapes – Croakers Croaking

Croakers destined for the table.

First, a bit of introduction. Elizabeth Ritson’s 1816 poetical description of Norfolk, Virginia, its people, customs, manners, buildings, and foodstuffs stands out as one of the most remarkable renderings of an early American seaport town ever penned. Among my favorite passages are the enumerations of provisions for sale in the city markets.  Reading Ritson’s couplets my fascination begins with the diversity of what shoppers could procure for their tables and then drfits to speculation about the elusive sensorium she invokes. Her’s is a vivid world of curiosity experienced through sound , texture, and flavor. Take, for example, Ritson’s catalog of fish harvested from the mouth and lower tributaries of the Chesapeake, some familiar delicacies, others forgotten or shunned by evolving tastes. All poetically memorable:

Of fish they’re many sorts, it’s true,

H.M. Arnold on Nassawadox Creek

But none that’s very fine to view;

The firmest sort that can be found,

Are rocks, from seven to forty pound;

They are a white and solid fish,

Making a truly valued dish;

In shape like cod, from head to tail,

And cover’d with a shining scale.

But all fish lovers most admire,

And more than any sort desire,

Their fine sheep’s-head, which all declare,

Surpasses any turbot here.

[155] Fine mummychog are too be had,

With tailors, alewives, drum, and shad,

Sword-fish, sun-fish, dog-fish, skip-jack,

Cat-fish, black-fish, and tickleback.

 Descendents of Ritson’s finned horde still swim the waters of southeastern Virginia as do others she doesn’t name: spots, fatbacks, menhaden – all once constituent in local diets, now distressingly diminished in their numbers. But, Ritson reserves her longest passage for the humble croaker:

Another fish, much priz’d, they seek,

H.M. Arnold fishing for croaker

Bringing to town from Tanner’s creek;

A horn proclaims the hog-fish near,

Quickly the light horsemen appear;

Upon a shabby nag they ride,

A pannier loaded on each side,

With fish so fresh that people hunt

Their coming in, to hear them grunt;

Declaring if fresh they’re found,

You certainly may hear the sound!

Perhaps, being us’d the pigs to hear,

The sound’s for ever in their ear.

The vision of fishmongers astride tottering nags slung with baskets of  gasping fish destined for city tables is made more compelling by the sonic imagination. Horse hooves clop, the wet wood of the panniers creaks, hucksters sing out, a trumpet herald news of the catch…and croakers croak. For Ritson, an Englishwoman recently arrived in Norfolk, the cacophony of croakers resonated the exotic. For local gourmands, the grunt vocalized summer plenty. Croakers Croaking

Purchasing fish in the Bayford Oyster House

It’s early on a fine warm August morning when I join H.M. Arnold at the dock of the Bayford oysters house and we push out onto Nassawadox Creek in search of fatbacks (jumping mullet or striped mullet). Before we pursue the mullet, though, H.M. checks his regular nets for croakers, blues, and spots. We motor through lifting mist up to one end of the net set near the far shore and H.M. starts the process of hauling in the mesh with its entangled unfortunates. “Andrew,” he notes, “says they were here yesterday.” Most of what he catches is menhaden (known locally by the dismissive nickname of Carolina spot) he shakes loose and sets free.

But there are croakers! And, they grunt indignantly as they are pulled from the still night darkened water, unwound from ensnaring mesh, and tossed into a basket for market. Splash, rasp, thud, croak. The last the distinctive grunt that captivated Ritson, a sound I remember from my childhood, a sound that reminds me that the world should be heard and smelled and tasted and touched. It is a sound forever in my ear.

Savoring Hannah Mary’s Pone

In the time of Hannah Mary’s pone. Sarah in 1936, Lewes, Delaware.

Wistfulness infuses Sarah’s words smilingly spoken:

Hannah Mary was her name. She was a lovely lady. She always came into town on Saturday morning, pulling a little wagon and one horse, and she always had made a few pies. And once or twice I tasted her pies, but we really couldn’t afford them because we always made those at home. But Hannah Mary made what she called a “corn pone,” and it was huge. I’m trying to think, it was certainly more than a foot round about six, seven inches deep. I don’t know exactly how she made it, but I know it took cornmeal and molasses and water. I don’t know what else she put in it, but I know she baked it. She had an old cookstove range that was wood burning or coal burning, but she would bake it probably for about six hours. And she used to make just one and she would sell it in chunks. You could buy a quarter of a one or an eighth of a pone, I guess. We didn’t get it every week, but when we bought it we would always get a quarter of it and, boy, was it good! You cut in slices and then either steamed it and then with lots of butter or you cut it in slices and kind of sautéed it on each side and had it with eggs and bacon. That was good!”

Corn pone, as regional fare and culinary concept, covers a good deal of territory, but Hannah Mary’s pone offers a glimpse into a dish well-seasoned with Southern associations that inflect so much of Eastern Shore life. Hannah Mary’s pone is not to be confused with cornbread or its cornpone variations. Hers bore only the most distant relation to the familiar miniature cornbread loaves baked in cast iron pans, each pone embossed with the impression of a shucked ear of corn. These cornpones, typically chokingly bone dry beyond the redemption of all liquid, offer something of a dim caricature of their origins as ashcakes baked in hot coals at fire’s edge. But, these baked asphyxiations happily are not the only pones out in the world nor are those other pones without their own extraordinary histories.  Pone (from the Algonquin “apan”), as encountered and adapted by Africans and Europeans in the early 1600s in the Chesapeake Bay country, designated breads baked by American Indians and subsequently acquired more specific reference to the cornbreads of the American South.

Hannah Mary’s pone has its parallels and precedents. Mrs. Bertie Powell, resident in the Eastern Shore of Virginia waterside town of Onancock, shared a recipe for “Maryland Yellow Pone” with her friend and neighbor Bessie Gunter, who published it in her 1889 cookbook, Housekeeper’s Companion:

“Maryland Yellow Pone: Scald three quarts or one gallon of meal. Let it stand until cool, then add half teacupful of flour. Stir with cold water until the ordinary consistency of corn-meal batter, and salt to taste. The art in this bread is entirely in the lightening and baking. It is necessary to have a small [Dutch] oven, which you can set inside the stove as it bakes too quickly in flat tins. Make up after [midday] dinner and pour it in the oven which must be slightly greased. Set the oven with the lid on, on the back part of the stove (mine is a range) where the bread will lighten gradually, but not bake, until tea is over. Then take the lid off the oven, set the oven inside the stove and have a good coal fire, and let the oven remain till morning. A thick crust forms on top which you remove as you cut the bread, only a plate full at a time. You will find the bread as yellow and almost as sweet as pound-cake. Remove the crust only as you cut the bread, as that keeps it moist. You can set the oven in the stove and warm the bread as you like. This is the genuine ‘Old Yellow Pone of Maryland.’ It is so ‘fussy.’ [I] don’t know how it will sound in receipt book, but the bread is excellent.—Mrs. B.P.”

Like Hannah Mary’s pone of Sarah’s reminiscence, Powell’s pone is slow baked in a cast iron Dutch oven on a coal or wood fired range. Powell’s recipe is also notable for cooking the cornmeal twice: first scalding the meal and letting it cool before baking. Powell’s recipe offers directions couched in the rhetorical authenticity, of time and place. The “genuine” pone derives from an “old” recipe from Maryland. She marks time through meals, situating dinner at midday and a light “tea” or supper in the evening. Properly concocted, the pone will be excellent, but, in its making, the pone is “fussy,” requiring a patient, practiced hand. And, then, there is the problem of translation. Powell implicitly locates the pone in oral tradition and hand-in-hand learning, wondering in conclusion how the dish will “sound” in print. Sarah, more than a century after the publication of Powell’s recipe, similarly recognized the fussiness and the inability of print to capture the art of making Hannah Mary’s pone.

Recollecting her childhood in the town of Lewes at the mouth of the Delaware Bay, Sarah Jastak (born Sarah Ellen Rickards) recounted the weekly appearance in the 1930s of an African-American huckster, Hannah Mary. “She had a wagon pulled by one horse, and you could hear that horse clip clopping down the street, Sarah begins and then continues, “it was just an open old wooden wagon. It just looked creaky and very, very rustic, and I don’t even remember how she had her baked goods stored. Maybe boxes or something, but nothing fancy.” Sarah adds, “she came around every Saturday morning with her produce. She would have made maybe three or four pies. She made just the one big corn pone and she sold it by the quarter, a quarter of a corn pone. I forget what else she sold, but I remember her pies were delicious and her corn pone – you just can’t get it now.” Hannah Mary’s route carried her from her modest clapboard home in the black community literally located on the other side of the railroad tracks, past the high school, and into McFee Street where she sold pone, pies, and a bit of garden produce to a white clientele.

Hannah Mary’s bona fides offer something more of a mystery. Sarah in consultation with her younger sister Ruth remembered Hannah Mary’s surname Burton, adding that her wooden house faced the old Savannah Road just across the railroad tracks.  The 1930 census enumerates the household of William Stockley and his wife Hannah, both in their early 50s. Living with them, listed as mother-in-law, is Hannah Burton, 83 years of age. But, murkiness confounds the details. William Stockley appears to be the elder Hannah’s son, who for reasons unstated has changed his surname from Burton to Stockley. More to the point of pone, William found employment as a cook in a white residence. Hannah, his wife, works as a housekeeper similarly employed.  In 1920, ten years earlier, William is Burton, not Stockley, working as a cook as does his mother Hannah. The younger Hannah is not on the scene. Weighing Sarah’s recollections of Hannah Mary, a neatly dressed woman in her 50s, with the census takers incisive notations, we get a sense of an aging, childless African-American household where the two Hannahs and William augment the family income with baked goods and garden produce. Younger Hannah carts those small commodities through the streets of Lewes where eager white customers purchase the pone on offer.

In the genealogy of Hannah Mary’s pone, one thought lingers. The elder Hannah Burton, born in 1855, grew up in a place where slavery, although increasingly rare, was legal and in a state exempted for political expedience from the immediate implementation of the Emancipation Proclamation. The pone Sarah remembers with such affection, a great cake of cornmeal sweetened with molasses, is consonant with the deep histories of laboring foods – notable for qualities of being low-cost, filling, and sustaining in a world of arduous rural work and limited means. Baked goods also offered poorer households, in particular African American families, a means to supplement income. In some instances, home-baked goods made a big difference. An 1889 obituary for “Aunt Maria” Bivens, one of Bessie Gunter’s Onancock contemporaries, praised her industry, “it is estimated that she made over 3,000,000 cakes, the entire number being consumed in this country. ‘Aunt Maria’ redeemed herself from slavery with proceeds obtained from the sale of her cakes. Sometime ago she purchased a valuable farm. She never did any other work except the making of her cakes. She supported her husband and a large family of children, and left considerable property.”  Not nearly as successful, Hannah Mary participated in deeply established economic strategy. Nostalgia drives the pone’s apotheosis from a dietary artifact marking hard times to a lovingly remembered treat.

When we write about food we all too often forget core considerations about flavor and texture and smell. Interest in food as object tends to privilege appearance over flavor, process over aroma, ingredients over consistency. Sarah’s recollections remind us that food history engages a wider array of sensory evocations: “It’s very hard to describe what that pone tasted like, except it was delicious. It was not really sweet, but not unsweet. It was dark brown in color. It was not light and feathery; it was of a heavier, denser consistency. It’s very difficult to tell you, except it was absolutely delicious, but it was not feathery like light bread.” “It was just delicious,” Sarah concludes with palpable longing. Molasses imparted sweetness; the long baking time produced the smoothly dense pound cake-like texture remarked by Mrs. Powell.

In the time of Hannah Mary’s pone. Sarah’s mother with a favorite chicken.

Sarah locates Hannah Mary’s pone in the intimate temporality of a huckster’s rounds and a family’s meals, “We knew she was coming on Saturday morning and it was always about the same time. And you could hear her horse clop, clop, clop, clopping down the street… It was an old horse and it looked like it was on its [last legs]…It was not a young horse. It was an old nag, kind of, and she pulled this two wheeled cart…She kept everything covered with a kind of sheet or something, and she would stop on the street and get down from the bench in the wagon and then go around [to get] whatever it was that she had for sale, and whatever we could afford, we’d get some of it.” “Life in those days was very much a kind of routine,” Sarah observes, “You knew what time to expect the iceman to come around, what time you expected the milkman. There were just times you expected certain things.” Hannah Mary curtailed her rounds in the winter months, requiring Sarah’s mother to visit her at home on the northern edge of Lewes,  “It seems to me that my mother would sometimes go out in the wintertime and get a pone. I don’t think she’d come around in that little open cart [in winter] because it would be cold.”

Sarah sets the table, “Basically, we had it for breakfast. It was something we served in the mornings, on Sunday mornings. We’d get this on Saturday morning when she came around and we couldn’t afford to get it every Saturday. We would have it on Sunday morning for breakfast and with either bacon or sausage or something like that and eggs…It was superb.” Sarah laughs, “It would keep for a week without any refrigeration. Of course it didn’t last long.”

More than once, Sarah, an accomplished cook, confided that Hannah Mary’s pone was a dish she could not replicate: “It was just basically cornmeal, molasses, I think hot water – but she baked it in a huge iron skillet. But, of course, the size of it alone would take a long time to bake, not that I would ever make one that size.” Then, Sarah adds, “Nobody nowadays knows what I’m even talking about when I’m talking about that kind of pone.” As proof, Sarah cites her continuing search for a recipe that replicates Hannah Mary’s giant pone. Recounting her failures, Sarah places two notions in play: the limits of historical knowledge and the reproducibility of past sensation.  As an object, Hannah Mary’s pone survives only as narrative, a thing that exists in the present only as story, a sensory world reprised exclusively through words.

The connections between Sarah’s childhood pone purchased from the back of Hannah Mary’s wain and the Mrs. Powell’s earlier recipe for a Maryland Yellow Pone triangulate this pone’s historic place in the culinary landscapes of extreme southern Delaware, the lower Eastern Shore of Maryland and adjacent Virginia. The dish, already deemed old in the 1880s, even then recuperated memory and authenticity. Mrs. Powell lards her narrative with asides on the art and antiquity of pone. Sarah does the same, extending those associations to race and class. Sarah and Mrs. Powell together voice uncertainty about the translation of memory into action. Theirs is a pone best consumed through listening and savored in the imagination.

Aberrant Things

Peelers in the Bayford Oyster House

Aberration possesses the noteworthy quality of rendering the unremarked norm visible. So it is with the current state of blue crabs in the lower Chesapeake Bay. Striding past the old concrete oyster shucking tables in the Bayford Oyster House, Jonathan Bunce extends his hand, not in greeting, but to display a three-inch blue crab. The sight is disturbing not because the crab is small but because of what it is and where it stands in regimes of understanding. The tiny crab he holds, its claws folded inward in repose, is a mature egg-bearing sook. “That,” H. M. states, “just isn’t right.”

She crabs go by a variety of names that designate their state of maturation. Sally crabs are immature females, sooks are sexually mature, busted sooks or sponge crabs are egg bearing. A fully adult busted sook carries millions of eggs. The diminutive busted sook in Jonathan’s palm might hold thousands – and not many thousands at that. Those are big numbers to be sure, but in a watery world where everything is on everything else’s menu only a few of those eggs will hatch and grow into crabs. It takes millions of fertilized eggs to hatch out as larvae destined to grow into a handful of adults. The tiny busted sook is bad news for the crab world and the universe of creatures that depend on them –  including the human realm of watermen, fishmongers, crab pickers, and gourmands.

Speculation ensues. Jonathan notes that the crab he holds is the norm this year – and so the aberrant becomes a new commonplace. H. M. wonders at what might be in the water, citing a recent study that found measurable trace amounts of Prozac and other pharmaceuticals in the marine biostream. What about the ag-industrial use of hormones – say, estrogen – we offer. Or, has the population in terms of gender become so imbalanced that a natural accommodation to redress a dearth of females is underway. We own only hypotheses.

The petite busted sook Jonathan displays raises questions about the work that objects perform in our understanding of the world and our place in it. In a “normal” year, the conversation turns to numbers caught, dockside prices, and the range of topics that govern crab economics. This crab-as-object is different from the one at hand and in its difference describes the ways in which the things we understand the least force questions that reveal the unarticulated expectations and ideologies that govern everyday life. The biology of the crab that indicates an imbalance in nature simultaneously reveals a parallel imbalance in culture. Where the physiology of the crab addresses distortions in its reproductive population, interpretive process reconciles the aberrant thing to the world of sense. In essence, the strangeness of the tiny busted sook demands sense making.  The challenge rests not only on the worrisome state of the natural world but also on equally worrisome ecologies of understanding. It’s not just what the crab illuminates about itself but what it reveals about us. What we learn from the busted sook is the ways in which we substitute sense for solution. When we posit believable explanations, we act as if we have resolved the stubborn thing, and at the heart of that action we discover the deepest work of words crafted as narrative into explanations that may not matter.

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.