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Consider the Oyster

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M.F.K. Fisher, whom John Updike has called our "poet of the appetites," here pays tribute to that most delicate and enigmatic of foods---the oyster. As she tells of oysters found in stews, in soups, roasted, baked, fried, prepared à la Rockefeller or au naturel--and of the pearls sometimes found therein--Fisher describes her mother's joy at encountering oyster loaf in a girls' dorm in the 1890's, recalls her own initiation into the "strange cold succulence" of raw oysters as a young woman in Marseille and Dijon, and explores both the bivalve's famed aphrodisiac properties and its equally notorious gut-wrenching powers. Plumbing the "dreadful but exciting" life of the oyster, Fisher invites readers to share in the comforts and delights that this delicate edible evokes, and enchants us along the way with her characteristically wise and witty prose.

96 pages, Paperback

First published January 1, 1941

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About the author

M.F.K. Fisher

97 books405 followers
Mary Frances Kennedy Fisher was a prolific and well-respected writer, writing more than 20 books during her lifetime and also publishing two volumes of journals and correspondence shortly before her death in 1992. Her first book, Serve it Forth, was published in 1937. Her books deal primarily with food, considering it from many aspects: preparation, natural history, culture, and philosophy. Fisher believed that eating well was just one of the "arts of life" and explored the art of living as a secondary theme in her writing. Her style and pacing are noted elements of her short stories and essays.

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5 stars
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253 (16%)
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Displaying 1 - 30 of 149 reviews
Profile Image for John Jr..
Author 1 book58 followers
September 25, 2011
This exceedingly modest book (a mere 77 pages) presented me with some modest, unexpected dilemmas. Seeing it in a book swap and recalling, from an encounter years ago, that I was determined to read one of her volumes someday, I picked it up, thinking I'd breeze through it and return it to the swap--I'm trying to pare my library. But I find I don't want to let go of it. Now the question is whether it belongs in my kitchen with the cookbooks (because it does contain recipes) or somewhere among the more serious nonfiction. Though I can hardly call myself a cook, I'm tempted at least to try the oyster stuffing in a turkey someday. On the other hand...

A good portion of human life in the more indulgent cultures these days is devoted to gastro-porn: a form of life-out-of-balance in which too much time, money, and attention is expended on increasingly fine points of restaurants, recipes, ingredients, schools of thought on nutrition, and the like. Pay attention to sex this way and you may be labeled an addict. M. F. K. Fisher was apparently never susceptible to this kind of excess, because food was apparently never the main point. Like an ellipse (if you remember your high-school geometry), she has two focal points: one is food, the other is, to put it simply, the romance of people and places--i.e., the rest of life. Here, her account includes the curiously bi-gendered life of the oyster itself, an imaginative reconstruction of a dining delight from her mother's boarding-school days, the tale (fanciful but still true in its way) of a nervous collegian hoping to bolster his virility, and the only funny recipe I've ever read, as recounted to her by "a cadaverous old man who had reigned at various times in the kitchens of all the crowned heads and banker-princes of fin-de-Hapsbourg Europe."

Because she has restored the balance to my sense of the place food may have in our affairs, in a way that's positively classical--something that no mere cookbook or food-magazine article has ever done--I think I know which shelf I'll put this on.
Profile Image for Hilary Hanselman.
161 reviews29 followers
June 4, 2017
A delicious morsel of a book.

"It should be opened at street temperature in a cool month, never iced, and plucked from its rough irregular shell at once, so that its black gills still vibrate and cringe with the shock of the air upon them. It should be swallowed, not too fast, and then its fine salt juices, more like the smell of rock pools at low tide than any other food in the world, should be drunk at one gulp from the shell. Then, of course, a bite or two of buttered brown bread must follow, better to stimulate the papilles...and then, of course, of course, a fine mouthful of a white wine."

Must read for oyster lovers, food writers/readers, and those who like subtle humor.
Profile Image for emily.
351 reviews210 followers
March 16, 2021
"Cicero ate oysters to nourish his eloquence, and the ancients used them with a startlingly cold-blooded combination of gastronomy and pure hygiene."

This was such a joy to read. Finished it in one go. So impressed with Fisher's writing, and very keen to read her other writings. I read this book as someone w/ a love/fear relationship w/ oysters. I only eat raw ones on special occasions because of the risk of 'parasites' and/or Vibriosis. And because of that I can almost always remember each time I'd indulge in them - the last time was with a friend in Borough Market wedged between tourists and office workers. The time before that was probably in Whitstable during 'oyster season'.

“Almost any normal oyster never knows from one year to the next whether he is he or she, and may start at any moment, after the first year, to lay eggs where before he spent his sexual energies in being exceptionally masculine. If he is a she, her energies are equally feminine, so that in a single summer, if all goes well, and the temperature of the water is somewhere around or above seventy degrees, she may spawn several hundred million eggs, fifteen to one hundred million at a time, with commendable pride.”

Besides the curiously wonderful recipes (very interested to try the oyster gumbo), Fisher includes in the book a history and life-cycle of the oysters - written in the most brilliant way one can about a humble mollusk.

“He devotes himself to drinking, and rapidly develops an enviable capacity, so that in good weather, when the temperature stays near seventy-eight degrees, he can easily handle twenty-six or-seven quarts an hour. He manages better than most creatures to combine business with pleasure, and from this stream of water that passes through his gills he strains out all the delicious little diatoms and peridia that are his food.”

I've never read anything quite like that before; it is almost as if someone had David Attenborough compose a narrative about food. I thoroughly enjoyed reading Fisher's rather short book about oysters, and now I'm left with the wildest craving for a bowl of tempura-fried oysters on rice. Or maybe oyster 'bo ssam'?
Profile Image for Jim.
677 reviews
March 13, 2014
This book both introduced me to and sparked my love of oysters and also of MFK Fisher, whom W. H. Auden called "America's greatest writer...."http://www.nytimes.com/books/98/01/18...

"An oyster leads a dreadful but exciting life. Indeed, his chance to live at all is slim, and if he should survive the arrows of his own outrageous fortune and in the two weeks of his carefree youth find a clean smooth place to fix on, the years afterwards are full of stress, passion and danger. . . ."

"Men have enjoyed eating oysters since they were not much more than monkeys, according to the kitchen middens they have left behind them. And thus, in their own one-minded way, they have spent time and thought and money on the problems of how to protect oysters from the suckers and the borers and the starvers, until now it is comparatively easy to eat this two-valved mollusk anywhere, without thought of the dangers it has run in its few years. Its chilly delicate gray body slips into a stew-pan or under a broiler or alive down a red throat, and it is done. Its life has been thoughtless but no less full of danger, and now that it is over we are perhaps the better for it."

"The point about her, as Ms. Ferrary notes in "Between Friends: M. F. K. Fisher and Me," is that Mrs. Fisher is not just a food writer. If she writes better than anyone about tangerines, it's because "underneath it all, she's not writing about tangerines." The tangential nature of the tangerines is confirmed over and over in Mrs. Fisher's writing. Witness this parenthesis to an assertion about the crisp flesh of oysters, for example, in one of her early books, "Consider the Oyster" (1941): " Crisp is not quite right, and flesh is not right, but in the same way you might say that oyster is not right for what I mean."

So what is M. F. K. Fisher writing about? Desire, neediness, solace, comfort, satisfaction. Ms. Ferrary finds her sensual rather than sexual. Coming to the writing for the first time, I would dare to disagree. Lots of it seems to me to be about sex. But you cannot be sure. http://www.nytimes.com/books/98/10/11..."
Profile Image for Shemaiah Gonzalez.
Author 1 book20 followers
April 22, 2020
The cover bears her photograph, a woman, young enough to be attractive in the eyes of society but old enough to possess some bit of wisdom. She wears a shimmery knit top, the kind one would wear to a cocktail party not a potluck picnic. Her hair is pulled back into a chignon and her eyebrows plucked within an inch of their life or perhaps gone all together and merely drawn on with a pencil to present the illusion of interest.

Yet even without this photograph, I would have had a similar mental picture of MFK Fisher simply by her voice in, Consider the Oyster, her collection of essays on, you guessed it, the subject of oysters. I would have imagined her in pearls with a martini in her hand describing her recipes of oyster- or ---in a plummy diction reminiscent of Martha Stewart before jail, before she became friends with Snoop Dogg and an old Hollywood actress that graced the films for the 30’s or 40’s. Her accent, of course, would be neither British or American in origin, but somewhere that hovers over the Atlantic for those who can afford to spend time in both places frequently enough.

Fisher begins this tone right from the beginning in her first essay, “Love and Death Among the Molluscs.” “Almost any normal oyster never knows from one year to the next whether he is he or she,” Fisher explains in her droll sort of way letting us know that “American oysters differ as much as American people, so that the Atlantic Coast inhabitants spend their childhood and adolescence floating free and unprotected with the tides…while the Western oysters lie within special brood-chambers of the maternal shell.” She tells us right off the bat her preferences for both oysters and people. Of course, Fisher believes “the Easterners seem more daring.” (3-4)

The essay “R is for Oyster” begins with an epithet, which in this case, is a marker from a grave stone,

C. Pearl Swallow

He died of a bad oyster.

Fisher says, “The man’s name was good for such an end, but probably the end was not.” I see her take the olive out of her martini to nibble upon, giving her guests enough time to laugh heartily. She goes on the describe the long and miserable death but as one would give a dry cocktail party anecdote, “And, God, he was thirsty, thirsty…I’m dying, he thought, and even in his woe he regretted it, and did not believe it. But he died.” (15)

This conversational tone makes even recipes interesting as the preface to the recipe for Dried Oysters with Vegetables shows.

“Dried oysters, which can be bought at almost any Oriental grocery store in the is country and are very much like the smoked oysters people give you now at cocktail parties, excellent little shrived things on toothpicks which make your mouth taste hideous unless you drink a lot, which may also make your mouth taste hideous. “(34)

Fisher teaches both the writer and the conversationalist that you can never exhaust your subject, if you add a bit of yourself in the content.
Profile Image for Chris.
63 reviews1 follower
October 3, 2009
After reading this book, I had two thoughts: MFK Fisher is a crazy, snobby old loon; and would I ever love to sit next to her at a dinner party. Her writing is witty, knowledgeable and from a different era. There are great recipes; the one on oyster loaves was the most tantalizing to me. At about 75 pages, this book is an easy read. I would read other stuff by this looney old girl.
Profile Image for Donna.
79 reviews3 followers
August 24, 2008
MFK Fisher is my new girl crush. Just look at her. This book really is just about oysters and I wish there was more. Fisher is sharp, snobby and super funny. She has included several recipes. My favorite is To Make a Pearl. In the list of ingredients, 1 diving-girl.
Profile Image for Amy Watson.
233 reviews6 followers
March 20, 2022
A delightful little book of essays on the oyster- including recipes, pearls of wisdom(!!!) and reminiscences- written by a witty, sassy lady in the 1940s. From the milky oyster stews of New England, to Oyster loaf in Victorian boarding school and Oysters Rockerfella in New Orleans. I want some oysters now.
Profile Image for Julianne.
207 reviews1 follower
June 14, 2016
MFK Fisher is a snob and I like it. I wouldn't want to have been friends with her but I love reading her words. Bought this book for K a long time ago because he loves oysters, and I stole it from him.

Sentences like: "A better [tartar sauce] can be made from this recipe, which is easy if you have an herb garden, and impossible, but still fun to think about, if you do not."

Or: "Far removed as this recipe may seem from the ordinary kitchen's possibilities, it still has not that fabulous quality of the rule quoted by everyone from Richelieu's chef to Crosby Gaige, in which you put one thing inside another until you have something more or less the size of an elephant, then roast the whole thing and finally throw away all but the innermost thing. For instance, you start with an oyster. You put it inside a large olive, then you put the olive inside an ortolan (a wee bird called "the garden bunting," in case you are among the underprivileged), and the ortolan inside a lark, and so on and so on. In the end, you have a roasted oyster. Or perhaps a social revolution."

Profile Image for Desiree Koh.
142 reviews12 followers
October 16, 2015
As long as it takes for an oyster to slowly evolve its way into crispness/liquoric stupor/optimal salinity is about as long as you'd want to linger over every word, phrase, sentence, paragraph, chapter of this book. Fisher takes her time to nudge descriptions into succinctness, whether directly narrating factual foundations or musing in the heavens of magical realism laced with truth. It's the literary equivalent of slow food, proving there are two sides (probably more) to every bivalve story.
Profile Image for Fishface.
3,083 reviews226 followers
September 22, 2016
Leave it to MFK Fisher to write a whole book on Oysters. She was apparently a devoted consumer of these unlucky shellfish, typical of her "I'll eat anything" motto in life. She covers -- you should pardon the expression -- the entire waterfront with this book, with recipes for everything from Oyster Loaf to Hang Town Fry as well as all the mythology and folk beliefs about the benefits of eating screaming, live protoplasm cut out of the shell.
Profile Image for Deb (Readerbuzz) Nance.
5,824 reviews283 followers
August 24, 2021
One of the signs that M.F.K. Fisher is an amazing writer: Fisher can write an entire book about oysters and it's cover-to-cover fascinating.

I have eaten oysters. They were delicious. But I would be fine if I never ate them again.

Still, I read this book and I couldn't stop reading. If you are an oyster-lover, it's definitely a book for you. And even if you are not, you may want to read it anyway.
Profile Image for Nat.
621 reviews59 followers
July 30, 2010
I learned that you can make an "oyster loaf" by slicing off the top of a loaf of crusty bread, jamming a bunch of fried oysters in there, covering everything with butter, and then sticking it back in the oven. Sounds tasty.

Also, I (think I) learned that oysters are alive when you eat them raw.
Profile Image for John.
168 reviews11 followers
August 16, 2016
This is what all food writing should be. So witty and erudite that it barely touches the ground; effortlessly edifying. Full of richness, but easy like a summer breeze. MFK Fisher is a stunning writer.
Profile Image for Madelynp.
392 reviews1 follower
May 18, 2019
This slight book is so completely and utterly charming! I have always enjoyed reading MFK Fisher, and this is no different -- she writes poetically about the oyster and inspires me as a lover of the mollusk, to consider all of the wonderful things one can do with oysters.
Profile Image for Vanessa.
75 reviews6 followers
January 6, 2020
I love Mary Frances' prose and anecdotes - and this may be the best argument ever put forth to eat an oyster - but I still remain somewhat unconvinced. If I ever find myself at an oyster bar, think of this book, and give it a go, I will rectify this review to four stars.
Profile Image for Brad.
206 reviews23 followers
August 8, 2007
Mandatory reading for the ostriavore. Includes colorful recipes, polemics and oysterlore.
Profile Image for monica.
25 reviews4 followers
July 30, 2019
Minus stars for outrageously racist statements interspersed throughout otherwise funny and interesting writing!
18 reviews1 follower
March 28, 2021
I sincerely wish I could've partied with Ms Fisher just once.
Profile Image for Hannah.
87 reviews
December 28, 2022
Classic MFK Fisher. Funny, erudite and evocative of days gone by.... her writing about oysters and what to drink with oysters (definitely not hard liquor) makes me really want to head straight to Flying Fish and order a glass of crisp Alsatian wine and a dozen raw succulent oysters. (Though I'll skip the oyster loaf, I'm glad to read about it and her quest for the right recipe.)
I think I'll start saying "I don't give a toot or a tinkle" about what people think, thanks to her usage of the phrase on pg. 43.
Profile Image for Trevor Garner.
3 reviews
February 18, 2023
“It’s life has been thoughtless but no less full of danger, and now that it is over, we are perhaps the better for it.”
Profile Image for Mélanie.
638 reviews106 followers
November 7, 2021
Poésie culinaire.
Dans cette sublime édition illustrée par la jeune maison d'édition Dalva, M. F. K. Fisher nous livre des recettes étonnantes et une histoire détaillée du mollusque vénéré ou détesté. Epicurienne et documentaliste animalière de passion, l'autrice nous offre un recueil qui nous amuse et nous fait saliver de la première à la dernière page !
Profile Image for Sam Spier.
4 reviews
September 20, 2022
Great snippy writing. It was certainly a choice to read a book about Oysters when I live in a country where they’re impossible to find
269 reviews15 followers
August 2, 2021
M.F.K. Fisher reminds me a bit of Rebecca West in that she has a voice that could likely make any topic interesting, but it’s all the better when such perspicacity and verve is applied to a subject dear to one’s heart. Her enthusiasm for, and curiosity regarding, the oyster is almost literally overflowing—I was reminded a bit of how Melville, in Moby-Dick, vomited up seemingly everything he knew about whales, either in the form of the quotes that comprise the several pages of epigraphs or in the physiological facts that pepper the narrative, except for the face that Fisher astutely holds back somewhat, giving this book a more curated feel. Also like Moby-Dick, Consider the Oyster invokes myth, legends, and fables aplenty; such an abundant source of curiosity are oysters—and not just for Fisher—they that they seem natural wellspring of these. Fisher is adept at exposing myths as necessary, including ones that persist as received wisdom to this day; there is no danger of strictly received wisdom being passed on here, as Fisher is, thankfully, much too insistent on doing her own thinking, and analyzing and critiquing the ideas of others. (This rigor should not give the impression that her conclusions feel any less personal—there is never any sense of detachment, clinical or otherwise. And while she is opinionated, she is not so in a way that emphasizes or prioritizes her own opinion, but in a way that encourages the reader to develop and formalize his own, whatever it may be.) These ideas and her opinions, along with the lore and the facts, are combined in something of a framework provided by the recipes that Fisher includes; what information she can’t fit into this loose structure, she adds by way of parenthetical asides, along with points of personal pondering that occasionally trail into ellipses made all the more tantalizing by the fact that one doesn’t, at the time, realize that they’re going to be followed up on, rather later on.

All of this adds up to a wonderfully procedural accounting of the processes that bring an oyster to a bed, from a bed to a table, from a bed to a stomach—the farming, the collecting, the cooking (optionally), and the eating. Much as the joy of eating oyster is in significant part derived from the routine of eating as much as the taste, much of the joy of Consider the Oyster comes from the detail given to this routine, and indeed to the appeal of this routine. In her attention to detail, Fisher evokes and emphasizes the obsessive quality that tends to manifest itself in oyster aficionados, whatever their preferences (and she covers all of them); these preferences are always highly specific and always strong (whether one likes them or doesn’t), and often regional, as are the thoughts evoked in Fisher’s prose and others’ recipes regarding optimal preparations, the virtues of oysters, and their optimal seasons. Fisher’s connections of these are as delightful as the rest of her prose—see, for example, her description of the traditional preference of Northerners for oysters without sauce, “cold, straightforward, simple, capable of spirit but unadorned, like a Low Church service maybe or a Boston romance”—as are her explorations of the reasons why the qualities of local oysters in different locales lend themselves to varying preparations. But despite the preponderance of personal preferences, there is a deeply catholic sensibility to Fisher’s consideration of the oyster, in that the oyster is the key, and can be treated as sacred or not, and all else is secondary. The involved recipe for Oysters à la Bazeine that she passes along from an acquaintance captures this spirit; calling for Béchamel, Soubise, and velouté, in addition to brook trout, bouillon made with champagne, Parma ham marinated in brandy, bread browned in goose fat, and a topping of truffles sliced paper thin, “and cut into the shapes of dolphins, crabs, and other sea-monsters,” it would appear that oysters themselves are practically an afterthought, not even mentioned until the last line (new paragraph) proposes a less fussy alternative: “Or fry oysters and serve with ale.”
Profile Image for Michelle.
398 reviews1 follower
December 17, 2020
My strongest association with MFK Fisher is the oyster. In the first book of hers I read, The Gastronomical Me, she described the unusual meals she was served at boarding school by a cook undaunted by the usually narrow and finicky tastes of young girls. The most memorable one was of oysters, a sea-change moment that started her upon a lifelong gastronomical journey. I still vividly remember her description of the slick, sinuous oyster slipping down her throat--not at all what food had been like up until then.

So this tiny tome (light on paper, heavy on charm) drew me in with its promise of more such magical moments. It's really a collection of anecdotes, as if you're chatting with Mary Frances at a soirée. Like all her writing, it's utterly charming with many moments to set one a-titter. And now I need to go make an oyster loaf.
Displaying 1 - 30 of 149 reviews

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