Location: Cape Cod, Massachusetts
Recipe: Oyster Po’boys
We drive in the oysterman’s pickup truck down to Wellfleet Harbor.
It’s early spring, sunset, low tide, and the water is calm but the air cool. I wrap a scarf around my face, then turn away from the sea, where the wind is starting to blow. We’re here so that my couchsurfing host, Miah, can show me how to harvest wild oysters. I’m up for the weekend to this mostly flat C spit of land far from the verticality of New York City. Unlike the city, it’s quiet here, no noise except for the caw of laughing gulls and the occasional crash of waves breaking along the shore.
The oysterman changes into neoprene overalls and calf-high rubber boots, the ones that have worn the hair off the back of his legs, and begins to slog through thick, wet sand. Behind him, he pulls a large plastic tub that, in an hour or so, will be filled with pound upon pound of oysters, still nestled in their shells. As he reaches the reef, he hunches over, a three-pronged claw in his hand, and begins madly scraping through the thicket of shells, working urgently against nature’s clock to find the 3″ long oysters permitted for harvest by the Massachusetts Division of Marine Fisheries.
As the sun sets, the oysterman’s cheeks turn red and his hands beneath blue plastic gloves grow rougher. The work looks grueling, as I watch from a distance now, safely ensconced in his truck, the heater blasting to keep me warm.
Clearly, I’m the lazy recipient of his labors. The innocent waif new to the pleasures of oyster, or so I’ve been told. I tasted my first only a few months ago (I don’t generally go in for slurpy, gelatinous foods) while on a date that never led to the oyster’s promised reward. This time, the oysterman assures me that his, fresh from the sea, will be like manna from heaven, salty but sweet, too, due to the combination of fresh and seawater that meet in this cut-off cove. But to play it safe, he says, we’ll eat them Southern-style, fried up and piled thick on crusty French bread in a sandwich known as a po’boy.
It’s said that the po’boy originated in mid-1800′s New Orleans and was called “the peacemaker” or, in French, “la mediatrice,” for it served as a gift offered an irate wife by a drunk husband to soothe her ire after a night of imbibing with his compatriots (or boys). Another story claims the sandwich derives its name from striking transit workers who were offered the cheap eats by a New Orleans tavern owner as they stood in picket lines missing a day’s pay; poor boys, indeed.
To further my shellfish education, we travel next to Provincetown, at the tip of Cape Cod, where the oysterman shows me the scallop and clam boats that, like their 19th-century ancestors, journey far into the Atlantic each week to troll the ocean floor for thousands of pounds of shellfish. The ocean is vast, its depths filled with universes most of us will never know.
And it is then that I discover that the oysterman has knowledge of his own alternate universe. For when not gathering wild oysters by hand, farming them in cages he sets out each summer, or diving for them in shallow waters when the mood strikes, he’s an explorer of another mysterious species: the human animal in the city. He is a street photographer.
And when he leaves Cape Cod for the city, his eye seeks out not the rough and tumble of shells anymore but the confusing lives of urbanites, caught unawares and in motion. The lonely and lost amid the city’s chaos.
He seems to need both, this oysterman: the city and country, the arts and nature. And like the po’boy he offers me that night – a Southern dish served up in a Northern climate – his life is that much richer for its complexity.
Recipe: Oyster Po’Boys
4 cups finely crumbed, seasoned Italian breadcrumbs
Serve with garlic aioli and Tabasco sauce.
Preparation Time: 15-20 minutes with shucking
Shuck the oysters and throw away the juice. Whisk the egg and milk together in a bowl. Toss the oysters in the egg and milk to coat. Combine the flour and breadcrumbs in a separate bowl. Place oysters in the flour and breadcrumb mixture and use your hands or a spoon to thoroughly coat.
In a saute pan, heat the olive oil over high heat for 1 to 2 minutes until hot but not smoking, then lower heat to medium. Place oysters in the pan and allow to brown on one side, untouched, for approximately 2 minutes. Using a spatula, lift gently to see if they’re golden brown, then flip and brown the other side for the same or even slightly less time. Remove from heat.
To serve, cut the bread in half, then slit each lengthwise to make two sandwiches. Divide the oysters evenly between the sandwiches. Slather the inner top of each loaf with garlic aioli and sprinkle the oysters with Tabasco, to taste. Open wide and eat!