A moveable (and risky) feast
Paying the price for eating oysters
I was given a copy of the SAS Survival Guide when I was about six or seven and, since I was always desperate for reading material, I read it repeatedly. Certain pieces of advice surface in my mind occasionally, on digging out shelters in the snow (make your sleeping area higher than the lowest point so that the cold air sinks away from you) and what offal to avoid (polar bear liver is dangerously high in vitamin A). There’s a ten-step method for testing plant edibility which is seared into my brain. Yet, on a recent day trip to the seaside, when walking past a hedgerow I picked and confidently bit on a leaf of a lords-and-ladies plant (also called arum lily) having optimistically mistaken it for something else. (Too embarrassing to say what.) This is a poisonous plant and unconfusable with anything else when the berries are out. The nasty stinging on my tongue warned me off: like being stabbed with tiny needles. Later I skinned a knee tripping over on the pebble beach while wondering if some of the nice glossy leaves growing on the foreshore were sea beets.
At lunchtime my sister and I shared a dozen native oysters, which was the main purpose of the trip: it was the last chance before the end of the season, the sweet spot when it’s sunny enough to have them outside in the best way: on an aluminium or paper plate heaped with ice, outdoors, with chips and cider. The wind blew over our plastic wine glasses so it was safer to get a pint. Tabasco and lemon to squeeze for seasoning. My sister only likes natives — “They’re what I think an oyster should be like” — and small ones at that. Rock oysters are too many mouthfuls. Even so, we had a second round of small rocks, shared with her boyfriend: 72 hours later, having returned to our separate cities, we were violently sick.
We know that oysters have been eaten in vast quantities from ancient times — the shells are found in neolithic middens in Scotland. I hope that if I had been a neolithic person I would have been appreciated for my willingness to endure bodily harm in search of something edible. I would probably have doomed the whole cave society and never be allowed outside again. While recovering I spent hours reading horror stories of people who died from eating shellfish — sometimes from the horrific vibrio bacteria family.
Ernest Hemingway warned that eating badly in the semi-wild could put one “on the pathway to nervous dyspepsia”, in a piece for the Toronto Daily Star in 1920, “Camping out” — available online, but also collected in Eating Words, the Norton anthology of food writing (W.W. Norton, £25). “It is all right if [one] is only out for the day and going home to a good meal at night.” According to Hemingway, going “into the bush” during the summer is a great and very normal way to save money and relax, and “thousands” of men do it:
A man who gets his two weeks’ salary while he is on vacation should be able to put those two weeks in fishing and camping and be able to save one week’s salary clear. He ought to be able to sleep comfortably every night, to eat well every day and to return to the city rested and in good condition.
This sounds improbable but perhaps things are different in Canada.
As with an awful lot of writing about the outdoors the food itself is implicitly plentiful — see also the Swallows and Amazons’ tinned “pemmican” (corned beef), endless tea and eggs, fried pike and bunloaf (a Cumbrian teacake), and there is the suggestion that being outside is good for the appetite. The Swallows always claim they eat more outside. If anything I think the opposite is true: there is always the tide or the weather or the lack of shelter to put you off eating. What’s nice is that Hemingway is keen to teach his (male) campers how to cook to quite a high standard: “Any man of average office intelligence can make at least as good a pie as his wife . . . If your pals are Frenchmen they will kiss you.” (The wives seem not to be invited to this holiday.) This is the it- can’t-be-so-hard school of cooking: “Men have always believed that there was something mysterious and difficult about making a pie. Here is a great secret. There is nothing to it. We’ve been kidded for years.”
Recipes are given in a couple of sentences: “Put the bacon in and when it is about half cooked lay the trout in the hot grease, dipping them in corn meal first . . . The trout are crisp outside and firm and pink inside and the bacon is well done — but not too done.” The failures are pretty bluntly conveyed: if you don’t know what you’re doing “the bacon curls up and dries into a dry tasteless cinder and the trout is burned outside while it is still raw inside.” I had to look up his allegedly essential “folding reflector baker”, which turns out to be an open-sided aluminium box one places beside a fire.
In A Moveable Feast Hemingway ascribes a kind of power to oysters, with their “sea taste” and “succulent texture”: “As I drank their cold liquid from each shell . . . I lost the empty feeling and began to be happy and make plans.” On our day at the seaside, in the town I don’t think I should embarrass by name, the oyster liquid felt medicinal; I felt overcome with the pure mineral intensity of them. Thinking about them seems to fills me with strength. So I learned nothing by getting ill. I still want to eat oysters.