Tuesday, October 19, 2010

A Farewell to Mignonette

Believe it or not, despite being in Chicago for so many years, my first trip to Madison, WI came last weekend. During this trip I submerged myself in the expected: ridiculous amounts of beer, sausage and cheese of varying qualities; lots of walking around the Capitol at the country's largest farmers' market, marveling at the quality and modest prices of an endless amount of produce and baked goods while scarfing down strange apples, cider, doughnut twists and a really well-made biscuit; soundlessly relishing the sanctity of being out of the city and seeing stars, breathing actual air and paying a mere three dollars for all day garage parking.

But one of the things that stands out to me most after this trip is the experience at a lakefront restaurant called Sardine, whose food and refreshingly kind, genuine service destroyed my belief, cemented while living on the east coast, that the better the view of the water, the worse the restaurant. Sardine is a really well-put together bistro that executed well, but that is really neither here nor there. What's important about Sardine is that it offered me a chance to open up a very special time of year for me: oyster-eating time. Open it I did. And how!

An old adage tells us not to eat oysters during months not containing the letter "r". I'm not sure how much weight that carries with today's oyster farming; of course good oysters can be had during the summer. But more importantly, it's the brisk fall weather that makes me crave them. And I realize how tony this makes me sound, but when this weather hits, I want crisp white wine and oysters by the gross. But to be clear: this is all I want. The dry wine cleans my mouth up for the next oyster, and when I eat that oyster I'm smelling it, tasting it and all of its juices, and chewing it. I'd never slurp down a piece of good ribeye--so much of the joy of eating comes in the masticating and feeling the food in one's mouth--so why do that with an oyster? Why am I eating it otherwise? And to be certain, the combination of shallot, vinegar and black pepper that makes the classic, beautiful mignonette sauce that accompanies oysters so often is one of my hands down favorite things in the world of eating. Sour, oniony, sharp. But again, when I eat an oyster, I want to taste that oyster. The sea water it lived in. Its cucumbery delicacy and its briny strength. Another recent dozen oysters at the hearty Publican afforded me a trip around this country's coasts, up and down the east and the west. When you embark on this trip yourself at your local oyster shack, leave the mignonette at home, or at least in the middle of the ice on your platter. Just once if not more. Smell the oyster, tip it into your mouth with all of its brine, chew it. Listen to what it tells you, learn where it's coming from. Revel in enjoying this, the freshest of foods, still alive as it arrives at your table. Thank the mignonette for his time, and perhaps invite him to the salad course. But above all else, taste that oyster.