Guest contributor: Kate Christensen

The Meal of a Lifetime

categories: Cocktail Hour / Guest Columns / Our Best American Essays

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In August of 2010, Brendan and I lived at a three-week artists’ residency in southern Germany. “You’ll live in a castle,” the organizer who’d invited us had promised. So we arrived at the Schloss School, a former monastery turned castle turned boarding school, with visions of candlelit dinners in a grand medieval hall (at least I did) to find that we were to eat three meals a day in a side room of the school cafeteria, with no wine served, with thirty other artists from various countries. (We also slept in dorm rooms, in kiddie beds.)

The food was heavy and bland, since this was, after all, a boarding school, and a German one at that. But worse, the administrators in charge of the residency regularly forgot to tell the kitchen staff about field trips or bonfire suppers, and likewise, to inform us residents about mealtime changes. This created a constant state of war between artists and cooks: When we showed up late or early, they spat at us. When we came to a meal having failed to notify them that we wouldn’t be at the one prior, they threatened not to feed us. I have never been yelled at as much as I was during those three weeks in the Bodensee. And it was all in German. It was terrible. It made me lose my appetite, which is nearly impossible.

Kate C MooseAfter the residency, Brendan and I hightailed it (in other words, took a train) to Brittany, to visit friends of his family. Jean-Louis and his wife, Marie, and their son live in an old stone house in a small, insanely picturesque village called Saint-Briac-sur-Mer. Jean-Louis is a real cook, whereas Marie, by her own admission, can’t boil an egg. They’re both French, but Marie is also Russian, which gives her personality a tragic depth. She has olive skin, wide blue eyes, and short, curly hair, and is a few years younger than I am. Jean-Louis is an energetic, handsome man twenty-five years older than she is, which beats Brendan’s and my age difference by five years. As a foursome, we all seemed to be about the same age, which proves something, maybe.

KateChristensenWebAs if he sensed the Sturm und Drang of our recent culinary experience, Jean-Louis fed us, to put it mildly. On our first morning there, before lunch, he sauntered out in his espadrilles to the village market, which camped outside their front door once a week (it was like a movie set, missing only an accordion player and Audrey Tautou), and bought a dozen oysters, each, for everyone. He came home and shucked them all and rested each dozen on a bed of fresh wet seaweed, and then he opened a bottle of cold Pouilly-Fuissé.

We gathered around the table; lunch began. Those oysters were plump and robust but awesomely weird, unlike any I’d ever had: mineral, flinty-tasting, zinc mixed with succulence. Their deep, shaggy shells were filled with brine. The flat tops of their shells, like caps, contained nuggets of oyster meat we chewed off before emptying each oyster body down our gullets, seawater and all. With these, we ate buttered bread, even gluten-intolerant me, because fuck it, that was the best lunch of my whole life.

Afterwards, we all staggered off for naps. I slept so deeply I had no idea where I was when I woke up. Those oysters had a narcotic quality, like the poppies in “The Wizard of Oz.”

[Kate Christensen is a novelist, memoirist, journalist, and bon vivant who lives in Portland, Maine, not far from Space Gallery, where she will be appearing with the actual Bill and Dave and fellow guests Bill Lundgren and Kate Miles for Bill and Dave’s Live!on Friday, November 13, 7:00 p.m. It turns out, amazingly, that the Belon oysters of Brittany also live in Maine, where they’re more accurately called the “European flat oyster,” since only true “Belons” come from the Belon River estuary. Call them what you will, Belons were transplanted to Maine decades ago.]

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