Thursday, July 27, 2006

The Art of Shellfishness

Yesterday after the gym, I rode to Central Fish for my weekly dozen oysters. I know, I know, never eat shellfish in months without an "R." Well, I've been doing just that all summer and nothing's nailed me yet. It was a slow day, and twenty minutes before closing time Doc was on the sidewalk and Lulu and some other guys were standing in the doorway savoring the late afternoon Ninth Avenue fumes. I slapped Doc five as I rolled past to a small hopeful tree, where I swung off the bike and locked up. Lulu smiled and went inside, and I checked in with Doc, then stepped in to choose my shellfish off the display ice. Doc came in and told me not to bother. "Lulu's taking care of you. He's got the oysters in the back, they're fresher. You're his special customer."

Can't really argue with that, so I just showed Doc the most elaborate oyster I'd chosen, a triple with several small clams hanging off it -- he wasn't impressed -- and then went to buy a beer at the African place next door.

When I returned, Lulu was opening and eating some oysters himself. He's a good-looking Hispanic guy in his mid-40s, with a wolfish grin under a shock of black hair. He saw me eyeballing the walls for a church key and said, "Let me," then opened it with his shucking knife. He's an all-purpose opener.

"OK. You ready?"

"Let's go." I took a long pull on the Guinness and accepted my first mollusk.

Was it the best one ever? No. But it was good. Not great. I don't use sauce or lemon, and I chew before I swallow, each chomp a death blow. He kept handing me oysters. They just kept on coming. I started examining them, noting the fine veins on the translucent gray sac, black frills like the front of a tuxedo shirt, the cloudy liquor pooling in the shell around the organs. And always the outside of the shell, to see if we were consigning any living things to long slow landfill deaths. After my last oyster visit, I coasted my bike down to the Hudson and threw back three live oysters plus a few hitchhiking clams.

"How's your day going?"

He shook his head. "Not so good. Slow day."

"That doesn't sound so bad."

"I like it busy. When it's slow, the boss is in a bad mood and time drags. And I don't make any tips."

I tip Lulu well, but hadn't realized he actually counted on that.

"And when it's busy, the day just goes by, boom, like that. But slow days, they take a long time."

He was keeping very busy with my oysters. I hadn't been counting, but I was slowing down. "Are we at 12 yet?"

"Oh yeah, but you had some twins."

"Twins count as one?"

"Of course," he said, eyes on his knife as it gently penetrated my next victim. I stepped back from the waist-high cutting board, my staging area, to look at the blue plastic tub below. We'd been dropping the shells through a five-inch circular hole in the board, he the first half of the shell, me the second, for at least ten minutes. Amid a few crumpled papers and bottlecaps lay countless oyster remains, some rough and gray, others white and gleaming.

All around us, guys were pulling fish off the display ice and tossing them into cold-packed plastic tubs for overnight storage. After a slow day, they were all finally busy. No urgency, just repacking the inventory. A low tide of water sloshed around the wood risers we were standing on, a few hunks of bright orange salmon drifting past in a scum of scales and other detritus.

Eventually, he announced, "Here's your last one." I accepted the final creature with relief and finished my beer. "I need a fish for dinner, too. What's fresh?"

"A lot. Snapper, porgies, sea bass, bluefish, grouper ....."

I decided on a red snapper, and Lulu went to the back to get one. He cleaned it using an electric scaler that lay at the end of a long cord like a dentist's drill; he ran its flat side up and down the fish's flanks, sending scales flying. When he was done spraying fish bits every which way, I approached the bench again.

"How long've you been working here?"

"Twenty years," he said, expertly shearing off the fins and tail and snipping away the jaws from the torso.

"Twenty years! How'd you start?"

"You know, driving, delivery, packing, whatever. Yep, twenty years. Long time." He scraped the abdominal cavity clean, teasing away the dark and reluctant internal organs.

"What's your favorite fish?"

"Filet of sole," he said, looking up. "That's my favorite. I also like white snapper -- more than the red snapper -- and I like sea bass, porgies -- I eat them with the bones," he smiled, spraying the inside of the ribcage with a hose to blast away the last shreds of bloody tissue.

I must have looked disbelieving as I repeated, "Porgies? With the bones?"

"I deep-fry. I don't bake or grill them."

Does higher heat soften bones? Maybe fishmongers have strong teeth.

He rinsed off the fish and declared, "It's ready. Is that it?"

"That's it."

Lulu packed the denatured red snapper in a plastic bag and then put that in a paper bag. "Pay Dominic. Enjoy your dinner. Thanks.

"Dominic," he called. "Fifteen dollars." Lulu rinsed his hands and wiped them on his apron and went outside.

Dominic, a squat white-haired old bird with a beaky nose and sharp eyes, stepped up to the register, another small island of human activity just behind the lobster tanks. He took my credit card and added the tip on my request, then pulled a bill from the register and dropped it in Lulu's tip can. I asked the boss about his favorite fish.

"What's my favorite fish? I like all kinds of fish. Look," he said, walking to the glass-fronted freezer. "Tonight I'm having tuna for dinner. Tuna belly," he clarified, pulling out a semi-frozen two-pound hunk of red in a honey-colored plastic bag. He set it next to the register and added, "I like all kinds of fish."

I thanked him, told him how much I like his store, which he appreciated, and then I left. I felt fine.

Too much is never enough. I went back to the African store, because my new kitchen needs spices and it seemed a perfect place to stock up. I asked the pleasant young Korean counterman when the Africans had sold the store.

"No Africans ever owned it."


"Never. Jews ran it for fifty years. And then Koreans bought it about twenty years ago."

He confirmed my notion that most of the customers are Africans or West Indians, and a few walk-on-the-mild-siders like me pop in from time to time. While I was trolling the shelves, a third type showed up. A flustered guy walked halfway in, eyeballed the unfamiliar jumble, and said, "Potato chips?"

"No potato chips," said the clerk.

"No potato chips?"

"No, no potato chips."


"No. Try next door."

He could have had a softball-sized wad of corn paste, or a whole salted and preserved tilapia, or a Lebanese sesame candy, or a box of Horlick's milk powder biscuits, or Chinese cookies the size and shape of dice, or even fresh kola nuts (four to a bag), but no, no potato chips.

Eventually I chose four condiments: a Barbadian habanero-mustard sauce (bottle), sambal oelek from Vietnam via Rosemead, CA (jar), harissa from France (can), and an oil-based African paste called -- no kidding -- Shitor (jar). There were three kinds of Shitor, and I took the one that sells the best. It's made of peppers, dried shrimp, herring, garlic, and some other stuff which I can't look up. I'll explain in a minute.

I was excited about all my new spices, so even though the fish didn't need any spices beyond those in which it was cooked -- garlic, ginger, cilantro, jalapeno -- I had to try all the new sauces on it (except the canned harissa).

At about 1:30am, I became queasy. By 2:30, my stomach gave up, and I suffered increasingly painful bouts of reverse peristalsis for about two hours. I'd hurl, sniffle, hack, gargle, brush, and then go lie down to sleep. But sleep would not come. Then I'd do it all over again. Four times, maybe five. Finally, as the sky paled over my viewless windows, I drifted off, my throat raw from acid, my stomach muscles exhausted. The accursed Shitor played scapegoat, wrapped in paper at the bottom of my garbage can. I think it put a hex on me. Or maybe I just had too much of everything.

Or maybe you just shouldn't have oysters in months without an "R."

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