The Oyster Shucker
I walked into the Crescent City Brewery and sidled up to the bar. I was 19 years old and full of bravado with a damn good fake ID to boot. It was my first trip to New Orleans, and I had great expectations for the music, the food, the history. I was in a rush to try it all, and this was my first stop on an action packed weekend. Ravished after a 10hour drive, all I wanted was to slurp down a dozen plump Gulf oysters, throw back a brew and a shot and be on my way. The early afternoon sun was shining in through oversized windows, the tuba player was just getting warmed up, and behind the bar, an oyster shucker was busy cleaning endless mesh bags of oversized, grimy bivalves. I wasted no time ordering up a dozen. But see in NOLA, there’s no such thing as “wasting time.” Time moves not only slower but it has a different quality. It’s measured differently, and ultimately it’s irrelevant. In NOLA, there’s no “next thing,” there’s only this thing right now.
The oyster shucker laughed heartily at my hurried request and said, “Okay, dozen oysters coming up, but seeing as how you in such a hurry, I ain’t gonna let you leave.”
I wasn’t sure what he meant, but would soon find out. The bar started filling up, as did all the tables in the cavernous brewery. The brass trio revved up, and I got my first experience of what it means to eat in New Orleans. It’s more than just food- it’s music filled and audacious. With every order of oysters that came in, and they were endless, the oyster shucker would pop open a few extra and throw them on my plate. I may have only ordered a dozen, but it was to be a never-ending dozen. Hours passed, and the sun began to set over the canal, golden light mixing with the booze and the brass band. Something started to both release and awaken in me at the same time. The oyster shucker and I jived about everything. See, I was learning that in NOLA, as in life, it’s always about the jive. It’s about that connection and that shared experience. His daughter was graduating from high school soon and she’d be the first to go to college. I was a sophmore at the time, and he wanted to know all about college life, exams, and moving away from home. Something he hoped his daughter wouldn’t do. I told him, “I’m moving to New York or Los Angeles as soon as I graduate!” He didn’t like that much, and seemed genuinely concerned imploring me to slow down and stay put. He was mildly curious about my Mexican Jewish lineage, but sort of laughed it off and said, “well, here you’d just be some kinda creole.” We smiled; our conversation took its natural dip. I settled in, and quietly observed his methodical work. Finally, I leaned over the bar and asked him,
“Sir, you ever find a pearl?”
The band broke, and he stopped for the first time. Literally hours he’d spent either cleaning oysters or shucking them, and he hadn’t stopped to so much as wipe his brow. But at my question he paused. He looked me in the eye, his oyster knife glinting in the light, and said sweetly,
“Baby, I shuck about 5000 oysters a day, and I’m always looking for a pearl. But today I found me one, and I ain’t let her leave yet.”
The levies broke three years later, and the country was in a fury. People stranded on rooftops, thousands and thousands dead. One of our great cities, the heart and soul of our nation, nearly destroyed not by rising waters, but by willful neglect. I felt it acutely. I was living in Dallas, and overnight we had 30,000 displaced pouring into the convention center, shelters, and motels all over the city. My neighbor was in a state of despair because she couldn’t locate her mother for a solid two weeks. I had just graduated, was rehearsing a play, and moving to New York as soon as the show closed. Through all the turmoil I thought of him, my oyster shucker. I thought of his daughter and his family he’d shown me pictures of. I thought of them standing on their porch in the sunshine, grilling up oysters together full of joy. I worried for their safety. I prayed they were still alive. In my heart, I thanked him for his love and his pearls of wisdom. He taught me to slow down, to be present, to not be looking for the next thing, but enjoy what’s right in front of me. I’ve been back to New Orleans many times since, but I haven’t been back to the Crescent City Brewery. I’m too scared I won’t find him there shucking oysters and serving up smiles. I’d rather keep him there safe in my mind’s eye and never let him leave.
Find the recipe inspired by this tale HERE.