Hemingway’s passport photo from 1923 when he was living in Paris.
A bold dish for a bold writer
A love-it-or-hate-it delicacy, oysters are certainly a long-standing one.
Archaeological sites in Australia show oysters were eaten over 10,000 years ago. Japanese sites have found evidence of oyster cultivation since 2000 BC. World-renowned archeologist, Heinrich Schliemann discovered oyster shells buried in the ruins of Troy.
The Romans were oyster obsessed. Writers Horace, Martial, Seneca, Juvenal and Pliny all wrote about the gastronomic delight. And after the conquest of Britain, Rome spared no expense to ship particularly plump specimens all the way back to Italy.
Speaking of Britain, oyster shells have been found in Saxon archaeological sites, and a particularly famous oyster bed was even recorded in the Domesday Book.
Fast forward a few hundred years to the 17th century, and in The Accomplisht Cook [sic], chef Robert May devotes 32 recipes to oysters. Across the Channel, Grimod de la Reynière refers to oysters as ‘indispensible’ in his seminal cookbook, Almanach des Gourmands.
These trends also carried into the New World: explorers discovered Native American Indian tribes were well acquainted with the mollusks (or molluscs), and for centuries settlers brought European cookbooks to the colonies. In the late 19th century, oyster beds in New York Harbor were the biggest suppliers in the world, with some saying their popularity led to the birth of NYC’s restaurant culture.
With all this in mind, it’s unsurprising that oysters are among the most common foods found in literature. From Dickens to Chekhov, oysters appear in every genre and era, raw and cooked. So we’re going to cover two writers and two recipes to try and do this simple yet delicious mollusk the justice it deserves. And I’m starting with Hemingway because, well, I always think of him as an oyster-like writer: brilliant as he is, you either love him, or you hate him.
Hemingway in Paris
Hemingway had a long and interesting relationship with Europe, in particular Paris. It was his first port of arrival for service in WWI, and he was there for its liberation at the end of WWII. But Hemingway’s love for Paris is most evident in his short but wonderful A Moveable Feast, which details his time there as a young man between 1921 and 1926.
A Moveable Feast isn’t strictly fiction, but a memoir that was written at the end of his life and published posthumously by his fourth wife, Mary. It gives a fantastic amount of detail, complete with exact street addresses of his apartments and those of his friends, and an array of bar and café names where he used to spend time writing, drinking and socializing, many of which are still there.
Best of all is the amazing cast of characters Hemingway weaves throughout the memoir – novelists, artists, poets, playwrights. He gives the reader intimate details of his relationships with such figures as Gertrude Stein, James Joyce, Ezra Pound, Evan Shipman, Sylvia Beach, Ford Maddox Ford, Wyndham Lewis and F. Scott Fitzgerald.
All were part of the Lost Generation, a term coined by Gertrude Stein and made famous by Hemingway in his masterpiece, The Sun Also Rises. It was used to describe the generation that came of age during the First World War, many of whom fought and became directionless after the experience.
A dozen oysters with a dry white wine
As you might guess, food features heavily in A Moveable Feast, and oysters show up several times. Although Hemingway is a struggling writer, he occasionally comes into some cash and quickly spends it dining out, often on oysters and wine:
I asked the waiter for a dozen portugaises and a half-carafe of the dry white wine they had there… As I ate the oysters with their strong taste of the sea and their faint metallic taste that the cold white wine washed away, leaving only the sea taste and the succulent texture, and as I drank their cold liquid from each shell and washed it down with the crisp taste of the wine, I lost the empty feeling and began to be happy and to make plans.
Hemingway later explains that the portugaises oysters, although a treat for him, are actually a cheap option. When wealthy poet Ernest Walsh treats him to lunch at the best restaurant in the Boulevard St-Michel quarter, they eat, ‘the expensive flat faintly coppery marennes, not the familiar, deep, inexpensive portugaises.’ Everything is washed down with a lovely bottle of Pouilly-Fuissé.
Paris est une fête
A Moveable Feast is really a celebration of everything Paris. The title comes from Hemingway’s epigraph on the title page of the 1964 edition: ‘If you are lucky enough to have lived in Paris as a young man, then wherever you go for the rest of your life, it stays with you, for Paris is a movable feast.’
Given this, it’s unsurprising that the book shot back up the bestseller lists in Paris after the horrific terrorist attacks in 2015. Its title in French, Paris est une fête, means Paris is a feast (a play on words referring to a holy day, or feast day), became a symbol of defiance and a celebration of the city. In fact, many copies of the book were left along with flowers and candles at the city’s memorials to honor victims. I think Hemingway would wholeheartedly approve.