My dear friend and original Portland roommate Ali was in town this weekend, which is always a sure cause for lots of mayhem. And yes, lots of stuff did happen, and I won’t get into that because this is a family blog, but I’m going to blame her for all the bad decisions made. ANYWAY, Ali is a famewhore, and she knows the key to getting famous is to appear on this blog, so she requested a meal in her honor. I let her page through the sacred cookbook and pick out whatever she wanted me to make, and she, ever the New York Jew, chose the recipe with oysters: Oyster Po’Boys, to be specific. So Saturday night, we brought New Orleans to Portland (the gunfight outside on the street certainly added to the feeling that we were in the Lower 9th Ward; more on that later).
Our first stop was the infamous ABC Seafood, former purveyors of my first-ever crustacean victims. Ali and Kevin tagged along this time to experience the absurdity of this place, and were much amused by the tanks of crabs, crawfish, and really strange fish, not to mention the shelves laden with bizarre packages, none of which have any English writing. I purchased twelve of the largest, most beautiful oysters you’ve ever seen and we headed home.
The first step is to, of course, shuck the oysters. On this front, Gwyneth is no help at all. She merely suggests, “You can get your fishmonger to do this,” which I think we can all agree just perfectly sums up every problem this cookbook has. She does add, as a small aside, that it helps to shuck them if you steam them for five minutes, so I got the oysters a-steaming and turned to the internet for some real help. Every website I found with instructions made it sound like I was preparing to go to Iraq; I needed special knives, gloves, pliers, a hatchet, and sticks of dynamite. But all I had at hand were butter knives, so that’s what we worked with.
Scary sea monsters/dinner.
I steamed each oyster for about five minutes, plucking my first subject from the stove (“Are those alive?” Ali asked, and I didn’t know, nor did I want to find out). Wrapped in a dishtowel to protect my delicate Jewish hands from the spiky shell, I painstakingly searched the shell for any sort of entrance. Finding something that appeared to be a hole, I jammed the tip of my butter knife in, half-expecting an alien shriek to emanate from within. Hearing nothing, my confidence bolstered, I began to pry and wedge and twist the knife, trying desperately to break the shell open. It didn’t budge at first, but after several minutes of agonizing effort, I defeated my shelled opponent. A slimy, disgusting, horrific mess slithered out from within the shells and plopped on the counter top. Someone screamed; it may have been me. At this point, Katie left the kitchen, declaring she would not be eating any oysters (and aside from one small sample of the po’boy, she stayed true to her word, a testament to how horribly gross a sight the oyster flopping out of its shell truly was).
Hard at work with my rudimentary tools.
OH HOLY MOTHER OF GOD.
Katie’s face sums it up.
That was merely my first oyster. We had eleven more to go. The recipe claims the entire meal takes 20 minutes, which is roughly as much time as it took for me to open a single oyster. By the halfway point, my hands were raw, my butter knife was bent, I smelled like whale vomit, and my counters were filled with sand and shell particles. But, you know what? It was actually extremely satisfying, in a man-versus-nature primitive way. Rather than having my fishmonger do this for me, I was forced to actually struggle with my dinner; if I wanted to have my meal, I had to out-muscle it first. What could be more satisfying than that? I’d wager this is even more exciting and satisfying than shooting a helpless deer from afar; try strangling a deer to death with your bare hands, and then you’ll know what it’s like to shuck oysters.
Ali opened an oyster as well, I should note. Her screams of triumph sent all wildlife in a five-block radius scattering. She sampled some of the raw oyster, only to spit out a tiny pearl. We later discovered most of the oysters were laden with small, not-at-all-valuable pearls. We probably ingested a good amount of pearls with our dinner, which seems pretty apt for the Danny/Gwyneth Project.
Dinner, or alien afterbirth?
My dozen mollusk enemies vanquished, I finally began the cooking process by heating a pot of safflower oil over the stove. Meanwhile, I prepared the foundation for our sandwiches: a baguette cut in half, layered with Vegenaise, horseradish and cocktail sauce, topped with romaine lettuce and sliced tomatoes (the recipe calls for optional pickles, which we purchased, only to discover we had gotten the foulest, saltiest batch of pickles of all time, so I opted against including those). Meanwhile, the oil had gotten too hot, and was now smoking on the stove. I turned down the heat and hoped everything would be fine.
And then my cousin witnessed a shooting.
You see, we don’t live in the best neighborhood. North Portland is not the safest, friendliest area, and it only seems to be getting worse. We’ve had several shootings in the past month, all of them supposedly gang or drug related. Don’t get me wrong, this is still Portland; it’s not like we’re living in The Wire or anything, but it’s still rather disconcerting. So Kevin took my dog outside while I was cooking, at which point he heard a series of automatic rifle shots, followed by a few single gunshots, all a mere block away from our corner. Suddenly, four kids came running down the street, clearly escaping the scene of the crime. Having seen a good amount of crime shows and movies, Kevin knew witnesses could be in danger (and my dog, albeit large and black, couldn’t even intimidate a toddler, so he’s no protection), so he threw his hands up as the kids passed by, hoping they weren’t dumb enough to add to the body count unnecessarily. They passed by, and Kevin came back inside, visibly shaken.
While he spoke with the cops, who were roping off our entire neighborhood behind police tape (a sure sign that you live in a fantastic part of town), I continued cooking. Nothing stops the Danny/Gwyneth Project! (And for the record, the victim was a 16-year-old who was shot in the leg and was otherwise fine.) I tested the temperature of the oil by dropping some batter in, and it browned way too quickly for my liking. But I was impatient and I’m a total moron, so I figured I could just drop the oysters in and pluck them out quickly, so we wouldn’t be waiting to eat until midnight.
Mere seconds before disaster struck.
So I dredged an oyster in some buttermilk and bread crumbs and dropped it into the heated oil. Oil splattered EVERYWHERE, and within seconds a flame had erupted in the middle of the pot. Yes, I had started a grease fire. Thankfully I have the reflexes of James Bond, and I darted through the spraying jets of molten oil to turn off the burner and slam a lid down on the pot, cutting off the oxygen to the fire. I then moved the pot of oil aside to let it cool, abandoning that single oyster to its crispy fate.
Attempt number two! This time, I heated a pot of oil at a much, much lower temperature, having learned my lesson about impatience’s effect on frying safety. Once again, I tested the oil temperature by dropping a glob of batter in, which calmly and slowly sizzled, turning golden brown after about a minute. Perfect! So then, one by one, I fried the oysters, which, sadly, retained almost none of their breading when they were dropped in the oil. I don’t think buttermilk adheres very well to slimy oysters, GWYNETH.
But whatever, we were finally done. I layered the oysters on the sandwich, sealed it with the top half of the baguette, cut it into four sections, and served it up, a pathetic 10:30 pm dinner on a Saturday night. And I kind of hated it! No one else really enjoyed it, either, and the main problem we seemed to all agree on was that it was a total waste of beautiful oysters. The oysters I purchased were massive, meaty monsters that would have been delicious served on the half-shell with some cocktail sauce and lemon juice. Instead, they were fried and shriveled in oil and further obscured by Vegenaise, bread, and vegetables. What we could taste of the oysters was delicious, but everything else was just too complicated. If they say the best chefs respect their ingredients, these oysters were definitely not respected by this dish.
Assembling the po’boys. Bonus appearance from Bark Antony, hovering rudely below.
The finished product. Meh.
The important thing is that we all survived the night’s many attempts to kill us, whether by stubborn mollusks, gang shootings, grease fires, or disappointing entrees. If I ever make this dish again (which I won’t, by the way), I’ll be sure to just do it the Gwyneth way: with a fishmonger, a personal chef, and from the safety of a high-security mansion.