"Madame Lily Devalier always asked, 'where are you?' in a way that insinuated that there were only two places on Earth one could be: New Orleans and somewhere ridiculous." - Ken Robbins, Jitterbug Perfume.
The thunder sounds, but no rain comes on this grey sky Nola afternoon. The breeze picks up, but not enough to shake the tangled, Mardi Gras beads from the tree in the front yard. Leaving New York in a blaze of smoky mescal margaritas was not the wisest course of action before coming to a place where drinking is as natural as breathing. A fried oyster salad with bacon lardons and roasted corn along with a strawberry Abita beer and I am beginning to feel human again. My morning was spent sipping Rue De La Course iced coffee and reading all of Shaq: Uncut. Shaquille O'Neal has a much deserved statue at LSU, where I'm located (side note: Early in his one year with the Boston Celtics, Shaq froze himself, as a human statue in Harvard Square). The Uptown of New Orleans is lot like a breathing still life statue -- the flowers unperceivable growth in the muggy air, the empty streets with the threat of rain and I walk alone wondering what night jasmine looks like during the day.
Since 2002, I have competed in every Acme World Oyster Eating Contest that Nola has held. The mighty mollusk now has its own festival devoted to it, the first weekend in June (a month without an "r" leading some locals who only eat "ersters" in proper 'r' months to declare the festival blasphemous while the rest of us have a pretty good time). Each year, the Tuesday before the festival Sal Sunseri, who with his brother runs P&J Oysters, takes a bunch of civilians out on an actual oyster boat to dredge not for gold, but for grey. P&J has been around 100 years, weathering hurricanes, oil spills and politics. Sal is a walking oyster museum with a mollusk knowledge so vast that runs the gamut from science to gastronomy to gluttony. Last year, I finally made the oyster boat (I've been to the Nathan's factory to see how hot dogs are made, I figured I should see where my other favorite pro-eating food comes from). Captain Wilbert Collins and his sons took 20 or so of us out on his boats. The map of the family owned oyster beds was Chinese arithmetic to us, but the Captain Wilbert Collins, with 75 years of oystering, looked like a man who knows where he is going; Picture Martin Sheen meets Jimmy Stewart, although wearing a light blue Cuban shirt with a gold oyster pin in its collar. We dredged a lot of shells and tiny crabs, but very few salvable oysters -- still we ate them right from table. A fresh oyster taste unlike anything else you've had -- first you get the salinity (like a good marriage, an oyster thrives where the salt water meets the fresh water) -- it pops in your mouth like a Roman Candle firework. Then, one gets the viscous texture that requires no chewing, but floats down the throat like a Viking Ship, pillaging every taste bud. Finally, like a good scotch, the warm oyster leaves a wonderful aftertaste -- slightly leathery, more salt with just a hint of metal. It is as if an ancient alchemist got hungry trying to turn things into gold, and simply turned gold into an oyster.
Oyster harvesting is a tough business and as resilient as the oyster is, to stay in business, like the mollusk itself, requires a hard shell. You wouldn't know this judging from Captain Wilbert's smile nor the photo that adorns his dining room wall (opposite an entire wall's oyster plot map of Louisiana). One of his boats is so loaded that every spare surface is covered in piles of grey and white shelled oysters. His voice becomes low as I hear him say, "I remember that day..." He feeds us oyster spaghetti, oyster fricassee, and pimento cheese until no one can move. It is a magical feeling, pleasantly plump, perhaps opposite from the belly I will have at Sunday's contest as I try to break my record of 32 dozen oysters in eight minutes. Even after all those oysters, I always have one to simply taste it, to appreciate what I consider the perfect food. In this blog post, Tom Robbins had the first word, so I will let him also have the last:
"Every passive mollusk demonstrates the hidden vigor of introversion, the power that is contained in peace." - Ken Robbins, Jitterbug Perfume.
Crazy Legs Conti can be reached at www.crazylegsconti.com unless he is in New Orleans where if you reach him, he'll buy you a drink.
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