Nightline: Chapter One of 'Kitchen Confidential'

A few miles west was Lac Cazeaux, a fresh-water lake where my brother and I could rent pedalo watercraft and pedal our way around the deep. We ate gaufres, delicious hot waffles, covered in whipped cream and powdered sugar. The two hot songs of that summer on the Cazeaux jukebox were “Whiter Shade of Pale” by Procol Harum, and “These Boots Were Made for Walkin” by Nancy Sinatra. The French played those two songs over and over again, the music punctuated by the sonic booms from French air force jets which would swoop over the lake on their way to a nearby bombing range. With all the rock and roll, good stuff to eat and high-explosives at hand, I was reasonably happy. So, when our neighbor, Monsieur Saint-Jour, the oyster fisherman, invited my family out on his penas (oyster boat), I was enthusiastic.

At six in the morning, we boarded Monsieur Saint-Jour’s small wooden vessel with our picnic baskets and our sensible footwear. He was a crusty old bastard, dressed like my uncle in ancient denim coveralls, espadrilles and beret. He had a leathery, tanned and windblown face, hollow cheeks, and the tiny broken blood vessels on nose and cheeks that everyone seemed to have from drinking so much of the local Bordeaux. He hadn’t fully briefed his guests on what was involved in these daily travails. We put-putted out to a buoy marking his underwater oyster parc, a fenced-off section of bay bottom, and we sat ... and sat ... and sat, in the roaring August sun, waiting for the tide to go out. The idea was to float the boat over the stockaded fence walls, then sit there until the boat slowly sank with the water level, until it rested on the bassin floor. At this point, Monsieur Saint-Jour, and his guests presumably, would rake the oysters, collect a few good specimens for sale in port, and remove any parasites that might be endangering his crop.

There was, I recall, still about two feet of water left to go before the hull of the boat settled on dry ground and we could walk about the parc. We’d already polished off the Brie and baguettes and downed the Evian, but I was still hungry, and characteristically said so.

Monsieur Saint-Jour, on hearing this — as if challenging his American passengers — inquired in his thick Girondais accent, if any of us would care to try an oyster.

My parents hesitated. I doubt they’d realized they might have actually to eat one of the raw, slimy things we were currently floating over. My little brother recoiled in horror.

But I, in the proudest moment of my young life, stood up smartly, grinning with defiance, and volunteered to be the first.

And in that unforgettably sweet moment in my personal history, that one moment still more alive for me than so many of the other “firsts” which followed — first pussy, first joint, first day in high school, first published book, or any other thing — I attained glory. Monsieur Saint-Jour beckoned me over to the gunwale, where he leaned over, reached down until his head nearly disappeared underwater, and emerged holding a single silt-encrusted oyster, huge and irregularly shaped, in his rough, clawlike fist. With a snubby, rust-covered oyster knife, he popped the thing open and handed it to me, everyone watching now, my little brother shrinking away from this glistening, vaguely sexual-looking object, still dripping and nearly alive.

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