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James M. Cain's 'Paradise'

January 01, 2012|By James M. Cain

The oysters are frightful. They serve what they call Eastern oysters, which means oysters that have been transplanted from the East to Puget Sound or some such place, and taken after they are grown. They are pale, watery, and fishy. Then they serve the native oyster, known as the Olympia, or Olympic —there seems to be some difference of opinion on the point. These are small, dark, and mussel-like in appearance. The taste is quite beyond the power of words to convey: I had to exercise all of my 90 hp. will to get down enough to call it a test. If you can imagine a blend of fish, seaweed, copper, and pot-washings, all smelling like low tide on a mud-flat, you will have some faint notion of what an Olympia oyster is like.

The crab is an ocean crab, smooth, without spines, and singularly coarse and tasteless. As a rule they serve it as cracked crab, which means that they steam it, chill it, and cut it up quite nicely, with the shell cracked so you can pick out the meat with an oyster fork. I think it would be better if they didn't let the ice come in contact with the crab, and thereby suck out the salt, but I hope they don't begin taking pains with it, just to please me. Any way they served it, I wouldn't like it. The only good crab I ever had out here was the other night, at a little party in Beverly Hills. It was in a salad, and I at once sought out my hostess.

"I've got to know more about this," I said. "I'm just writing a piece saying the crabs out here are lousy."

"I don't think so," she said. "I've had good crab in the Brown Derby, lots of times."

"Never mind the Brown Derby," I said. "I've got to be reliable and accurate about this thing, and what I want to know is: Where did you get this crab?"

"Well if you've got to know," she said, "that's canned crab, but I don't know why you had to be so inquisitive."

In other words, it was good old Crisfield blue-claw, and maybe it didn't taste good!

The lobster is that crustacean known in the East as a crayfish and in France as a langouste, and it's not much, any way you take it. It has eight big legs, but no giant claws, so that there is no claw meat. The fat and coral are inedible, and there is hardly any shoulder meat. The gigantic tail, when steamed and served cold, is white and of even texture, but tasteless. Broiling doesn't help any. The tail muscle of a langouste, when broiled, splits off into pieces, like a rope that has been unravelled, so that it is disagreeable to eat, and has no more taste than it had before.

But the prize monster of these parts is called an abalone. The abalone, if pulled out of the North Sea, would be a coquille, and if pulled out of Long Island Sound would be a scallop; but as it is, it is pulled out of the Pacific, which makes it different. The shell is large, some six or eight inches across, and fluted like a scallop shell, very pretty. The thing itself is a lump of muscle about the size of a small lemon, and so tough that if you tried to cut it, it would jump off the plate and hit the lady at the next table in the eye. So they operate on it with a hammer to soften it up a bit. How many outfielders they have to post, to field it home when it jumps off the block, I don't know; but when they get through with it, it is a sort of Childs pancake, and this they dip in batter and fry. You can have it. I got half of one down once: what an experience that was!

There are barracuda, salmon, halibut, swordfish, and tarpon, but I personally don't regard them very highly. Swordfish, I suppose, is as good as it is said to be; but for my part, when they begin serving fish in steaks, it doesn't seem like fish any more. The medium-size fish, like shad and bass, which go so well after the soup, don't seem to taste right: perhaps the trouble is in the cookery. The only fish I can say much for out here are the sand-dab, which looks like a small English sole and tastes like perch; the grunion, a near-smelt that is against the law for some reason, and that you have to get bootleg, and the trout. The trout all seem to come from Noah Beery's trout farm, on the road to the Mohave Desert. They are pretty good, 'anyhow at the Town House, where they know how to make a meuniire sauce.

IV

Now then, if there are no smells to caress my nose, and no sights to delight my eye, and no food to tickle my mouth, this gets us down pretty much to what we laughingly call my intellect. God knows I am not particular here, not anything like as particular as I am about oysters. I don't ask for talk about Proust, or familiarity with the cosmic ray theory, or acute critical appraisal of the latest Japanese painter; I can take such stuff or leave it alone, and I usually feel better when I am off it. But I do ask —what shall I say? Something that pricks my imagination a little, gives me some sort of lift, makes me feel that that day I heard something. And I am the sort that is as likely to get this from the common man as his more erudite cousin, the high-brow.

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