Sometimes they arrive without an invitation. As in Edward Gorey’s masterful The Doubtful Guest, having a door exposes you to knocks and bells beginning a doubtful process of hospitality. Maybe you had sent an invitation but then forgotten you had, and now as you’ve settled in for a quiet evening with a bowl of leek, potato and oyster soup, there’s a rapping, maybe even a tapping at your door. Maybe you have a friend and there’s an unspoken agreement that both of you may drop over at each other’s house whenever you’re in the neighborhood. But not tonight, you’re in the kitchen working on a leek, potato and oyster soup–a delightful dinner alone, now interrupted.
Not that you’re completely alone. You’ve carefully set in a chair across the table from you Osias the Elder Beert’s Still Life with Oysters and Glasses, which somehow you smuggled out of the Museo Nacional del Prado. Known for his flower and banquet style, Osias offers light pouring on the oysters as glasses and delicacies float in darkness, somehow on a table tilted toward you the viewer. The slightly yellow oysters pool in their white shells like butter, while a loaf of bread hosts a fly, presenting the traditional vanitas painting, a memento mori, a contemplation of the transitory nature of taste and the certainty of rot. You plan on eating and thinking, to artfully craft a meal as you spoon velvety goodness into your mouth and carefully study a representation of the very thing you dine upon. A day or two ago you were reading Fergus Henderson’s spectacular tome of cooking The Complete Nose To Tail, and decided it was time to make a soup–summer had fallen into autumn and cool seasonal winds brought out a yearning for a warm bowl of goodness. It all began with melting butter.
Then you carefully sweat leeks, onion and garlic. Adding potatoes when everything began to give a little, a softening in the very fibers.
You added a chicken stock that you fashioned a day ago, using the roasted bones of a capon that centered your dinner with sautéed green beans and mushrooms.
Still life paintings provide wonderful dining companions, for the most part they are born in Antwerp and then travel the world, providing not only images worthy of thought, but a provenance worthy of research.
When the potato cooked thoroughly, it was time to liquidate everything, and you poured the brownish-yellow goodness into the blender and whirled blades until all was a velvety smoothness. Earlier in the day, you procured the best oysters from your local market while dreaming of Frans Snyders and Anthony Van Dyck’s painting Fish Market with its incredible array of denizens of the ocean hooked and laid out for all to haggle over. It hangs in the Hermitage and you’ve always wanted to travel to St. Petersburg . . . and your mind travelled off on a imaginative journey.
Oysters have such a fleshy, seductive quality about them, these pale creatures that seem to metamorphosize in front of you, then again that’s the secret of cooking–transformation.
You ladle oysters into the bowl, then pour the soup over them, drowning the oysters in a rich, supple liquid.
All is ready, the soup, the painting, and then . . . a knock on the door. What will you do? Observe Osias Beert’s oysters closely, contemplate la mouche, sip your soup, let them come back another evening. You drop a needle on vinyl and listen to Baroque Music from the Netherlands. Now it’s a party! Bon Appétit!