Thursday, May 5, 2011

Tales of Monarchs and Mollusks

It all started just over five months ago, when Prince William of Great Britain and the comely Kate Middleton made the long-awaited announcement of their engagement.
"Let the royal hoopla begin," said my spouse, who is often quicker than me to spot and predict the kind of trendy folderol that will likely capture the attention of both the media and viewing public.
I've gotta admit that I was glad that our North Carolina TV-free status left me mostly shielded from the goings-on in these last couple of weeks before the actual nuptials. I saw enough of the so-called "news" shows excitedly discussing the style of Ms. Middleton's dress, state of her hair and all the other trappings of a royal wedding.
Now that we're back on the southeastern coast, where our only electronic media connection is via the internet and the television in the bedroom occupied by my wife's brother, I blithely ignored the whole thing, and so did she, until the big morning arrived.
"Matthew (her brother) just reminded me," she said excitedly. "Today's the wedding."
She disappeared, morning coffee in hand, to sit in rapt wonder in front of the cable-connected set he kindly provided. I got a few updates when she returned to refill her cup and grab a piece of toast.
Kate's dress was simple and beautiful. Her hair was worn down and elegant. He wore a military uniform of red, with a sky blue cap.
"Big deal," I thought, smugly as I remained engaged in my book and the ocean views in front of me.
She had just gone down to watch some more when she trudged back upstairs to our sitting room and plopped down beside me.
"I missed the kiss," she said.
"Oh, here," I said, puckering up.
"Not you and me," she replied. "William and Kate."
"Oh, I can probably find that on the internet for you," I said.
"No, I already saw the instant replay," she smiled. "I just wanted to see the real thing."
Now, my wife is easily one of the most sensible people I know; a person who clearly knows that a wedding between a handsome king-to-be and a pretty girl doesn't really mean much in a world that is bombarded daily by so much important, often unhappy news. Turns out, that's just why she cared enough to watch.
"A wedding is peaceful. It's happy," she said. "In this crazy world, we need a few more peaceful, happy things to pay attention to."
Fair enough.
Meeting the mighty mollusk.
I've occasionally wondered what convinced people to eat oysters in the first place. It's not that they're especially attractive. Their shells, unlike the smooth pretty ones that wash up on coastal beaches, mostly resemble bumpy, sharp-edged rocks. And the actual mollusk, once revealed after the shell is pried open, is nothing more than a grey, slimy-looking lump. But a little research showed that people have, in fact, been eating oysters since prehistoric times and have been cultivating them for at least 2,000 years.
But not me.
Oh, I like oyster stew well enough, but I always figured it was the other ingredients that made the little suckers palatable. Fried oysters are kind of tasty, too, but again, just about anything goes down pretty easy with enough batter, oil, salt, pepper and other seasonings. I had even sampled the raw variety in the past, a beer-fueled rite of manly passage that included enough flavor-masking sauce to float a battleship and a quick gulp that was more like a fraternity initiation than a tasty mouthful to savor.
The little backwater inlet behind our beach house feeds out of the intercoastal waterway, a long, brackish river that is connected to the open sea in several spots. The waterway is, in fact, what makes our barrier island an island, separating it and many other coastal strips from the mainland. Our shallow inlet rises and falls with the ocean tides and is alive with waterbirds and small fish that fly out of the shallow water in a silvery panic when larger predators come a-calling, as well as when we ply those waters in our kayaks.
It was while on a bottom-scraping, low-tide kayak trip that I spotted what looked like piles and clumps of small rocky shapes along the banks and poking out of the murky water.
"Oysters," said an experienced friend. "You're in luck."
I mentioned this apparent abundance to son Patrick and his coastal Carolina born-and-bred wife, Susan, who promised to initiate me in the harvesting and proper preparation of the unseemly little bivalves. They showed up with a large bucket and a pair of what are locally called "Sneads Ferry Sneakers," the white pull-on rubber boots worn by area oystermen when working the mud-and-sand banks of the nearby fishing village of the same name.
Before I could say "cheeseburger, please," the pair of intrepid hunter-gatherers had paddled out into the inlet and began prying and knocking the shells loose and into their bucket. They hauled their bounty up to the kitchen, where they washed and steamed the shells, then opened them to display the just-cooked contents.
"Yummy," I thought, as I tried vainly to come up with a suddenly remembered allergy or religious reason why I shouldn't sample one of the slug-like creatures.
I am nothing if not adventurous, though, especially if others are watching, so I gamely popped one into my mouth, fully expecting the too-strong fishy flavor and rubbery texture I remembered from previous experiences when I accidently chewed before swallowing.
But no.
It was good.
It was delicious, in fact.
It was, as is the case with all seafood, a clear illustration of the difference between something just pulled from the water and something caught, processed and shipped to a land-locked midwestern supermarket or restaurant. Their catch was bountiful, so we tried them steamed, fried, grilled and even included in an astonishing fried cornbread recipe handed down to Susan from her grandmother.
Yummy, indeed.
Once again, our Illinois/North Carolina living experiment has taught me something.
And while oysters are but a small example, the real lesson is clear.
Try something new.
You might even like it.

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