"Hunger is good discipline." -Ernest Hemingway
Alright, guys. This post was almost temporally relevant. Almost. It was going to be posted right around Thanksgiving time, but then you know, life got in the way of life, as it tends to do. I forgive myself. I hope you will too. The book (novella) featured in this installment is The Pearl by John Steinbeck. I could give you my own brief synopsis and analysis of the book, but I’ll let this Minute Book Report do it for me instead. It’s more entertaining, I promise.
The Pearl is based on a Mexican folk tale that Steinbeck heard in La Paz, and it’s prefaced with this beautiful little axiom:
“As with all retold tales that are in people’s hearts, there are only good and bad things and black and white things and good and evil things and no in-between anywhere.”
Not gonna lie, I may have developed a little author crush. Though it’s embarrassing to admit, I’ll do it: this is the first entire Steinbeck work that I’ve read. But it only took me 80 pages to fall in love with him and his style. He evokes the deepest understanding in the simplest of sentences. Just look at the way he lets you know the depth of Kino and Juana’s connection:
“They had spoken once, but there is not need for speech if it is only a habit anyway. Kino sighed with satisfaction – and that was conversation.”
The simplicity of the Native American lifestyle reflected in Steinbeck’s prose is a lesson we could all take to heart in the hustle and bustle that is the last 2 months of every year, euphemistically known as “The Holidays.” Though there’s a lot of contention surrounding the “real” first Thanksgiving, I’m pretty sure none of our forefathers intended it to become the grossest annual celebration of consumerism. Yes, Black Friday shoppers: I’m looking at you. Before you get caught up in the gift giving and receiving and buying and returning and exchanging that has come to define the season, just take a step back to breathe and look around. Life’s best memories don’t happen when you’re in go-mode. Don’t be afraid to stand beside Kino and toss some of your material stresses back into the ocean.
Before I read The Pearl, I had never truly considered Native American cuisine, even though I myself am at least 1/8th Native American. To give you the Sparknotes lowdown, they adore corn. Worship the stuff.
Beyond this, their food preparations are beautifully, seasonally simple, nourishing both body and soul. Steinbeck captures the essence of the simplicity of Native American meals:
“Kino squatted by the fire and rolled a hot corncake and dipped it in sauce and ate it. And he drank a little pulque and that was breakfast. That was the only breakfast he had ever known outside of feast days and one incredible fiesta on cookies that nearly killed him.”
For The Pearl, I made corn cakes akin to Kino’s customary breakfast along with a simple oyster preparation to go on top. (How could I not make oysters to go with a book about a pearl?) I used masa harina to make the corn cakes, which is essentially corn flour. Think cornmeal with a finer texture.
He could hear the pat of the corncakes in the house
and the rich smell of them on the cooking plate.
Though I adore oysters, I’d never really seen one cooked out of its shell unless it was buried beneath a blanket of deep-fried batter. They’re absolutely gorgeous creatures, though. I might even go as far as to call them the flowers of shellfish.
Serendipitously enough, we happened to find our own pearl in one of our oysters. Though miniscule and mis-colored compared to Kino’s, it still serves as a reminder to slow down and appreciate your food. Otherwise, you might break a tooth.
“The best known of all an oyster’s parasites and all its by-products of chicken-scratch and paving-crumbs and even catsups, is something that for centuries has meant love and bloody battle to mankind: the pearl.
They glow slowly, secretly, gleaming “worm-coffins” built in what may be pain around the bodies that have crept inside the shells. Sometimes it is indeed a kind of tapeworm, a larva that bores deep into the oyster’s soft flesh, carrying as it goes some particles of the creature’s injured mantle. These particles take with them their power to start the secretion of the same mother-of-pearl that lines the shell, rather as yeast carried from one sourdough pot to another fresh one will start its business all over again. And ultimately the unwelcome worm is encased in its rare coffin, and within the two shells lies a pearl.”
–MFK Fisher, Consider the Oyster
Since I’ve linked to both of the recipes that I used for the food above, I thought it’d be fun to include a recipe for the creation of a pearl rather than simply copying and pasting the two food recipes. This “recipe” comes straight from MFK Fisher’s Consider the Oyster, a truly delicious dedication to perhaps our culture’s favorite bivalve.
1 healthy spat scrubbing brushes, etc.
1 mature oyster unnameable wound-astringent
1 bead provided by Japanese government
1 wire cage 1 diving girl
Introduce the spat, which should be at least 1/75th of an inch long, to the smooth surface of the cage. Submerge him in quiet clean water, where the cage will protect him from starfish, and frequent inspections and scrubbings will keep his rapidly growing shell free from boring-worms and such pests.
In three years prepare him for the major operation of putting the bead on his mantle (epithelium). Once the bead is in place, draw the mantle over it and ligature the tissues to form a wee sac. Put the sac into the second oyster, remove the ligature, treat the wound with the unnameable astringent, and after the oyster has been caged, put him into the sea.
Supervise things closely for seven years, with the help of your diving-girl. Any time after that you may open your oyster, and you have about one chance in twenty of owning a marketable pearl, and a small but equally exciting chance of having cooked up something really valuable.
If you have the patience and persistence to acquire and carry out all of the above, Fisher adds one last word of advice: “Pearls have been cultivated all over the world, even in Sweden, but probably the Japanese have been most persistently successful, so that the following recipe must be carried out somewhere in the coastal waters of Nippon, just as most such rues should be followed in kitchens or pantries.”