Posted on December 04, 2014 by Cape Rebel

From Leipoldt's Cellar & Kitchen
by C Louis Leipoldt


Brother Jan’s eldest finished matric with a first-class pass, and is now enrolled as a first-year medical student. Would I please keep an eye on him, wrote Brother Jan, and see to it that everything was all right?

My memory of the little chap – it was about ten years since I had last seen him – was of a bolt-upright, skinny as a fishbone, short-pants, barefoot youngster with mischievous little eyes, a turned-up nose pointing skywards to such an extent that it always seemed to be smelling something unpleasant, and front teeth that a yappy little dog would be proud of. Now I was confronted with a fellow stretching an inch and a half further into the air than I would be able to myself if my rheumatism would allow me to straighten up – a fellow with smoothly plastered hair, the foreshadowing of a moustache on his upper lip, the even more suggestive blue-black along the jaw, and the inkling of that half-cheeky, half-embarrassed attitude his generation is afflicted with when meeting older people for the first time. The turned-up nose was just as turned-up, and the teeth were just as white, but the young man was now an adult and no longer gave the impression of a hungry, moulting chicken. The yellow tie swaying in the breeze – persuasive evidence of his rank as a first-year student – and the grey blazer had nothing in common with the short pants of ten years before.

It did not take us long to leave behind the protocol-like formalities between uncle and nephew, as Kleinjan at his best is quite adaptable. Within an hour I had got to know everything about the family, the farm, and his school adventures. It was apparent that Neef already felt at home in his new environment, especially since the end of the initiation practices that (it pains me to say) are still the habit at institutions we recklessly still call ‘universities’. It was equally apparent that he would not allow himself to be intimidated by anything said, taught or advised, whether by Oom or by anybody else.

When it was time for lunch I took him to a place where I sometimes enjoy the midday meal. There the waiter immediately announced that they had oysters, and I ordered two dozen without thinking. Kleinjan, his couldn’t-care-less, you-won’t-impress-me attitude notwithstanding, was in awe of the scene at the club, and his lively banter quietened down somewhat. When the oysters arrived, he stared at them like a Kalahari Bushman seeing a motorbike for the first time.

‘What on earth is this, Oom?’ he asked, and I imagined that I saw his turned-up nose flipping a centimetre higher.

‘Oysters, man, the very best. We’re fortunate to get them today. They’re usually flown up to Johannesburg, and are seldom available here.’

‘Eat, Oom? … Si …’ His politeness made him swallow the word as I despatched my first oyster, appropriately baptised with a drop of lemon juice.

‘Of course. Look, you take them like this,’ and I showed him how. Unfortunately, just as I was busy baptising his oyster, it went into a spasmodic convulsion.

‘What the … Oom, this thing is still alive …’

‘I should think so. You never eat dead oysters – that would be far too dangerous. Come now, don’t be so childish. If you want to be a doctor, you’ll have to get used to trying everything; and I give you my word that you’ll enjoy this. There now, swallow it down …’

‘Please … no … Oom … Oom must excuse me. It looks … it looks just like dermskraapsels.’

Well then, have your dermskraapsels, or have you never eaten a sausage? If you don’t want your oysters, give them to me. I’ll eat them for you, and you can order yourself some soup. But I must say, Kleinjan, I thought Brother Jan’s son would be able to show that he’s a man, even when it comes to oysters.’

Kleinjan did not order soup. He took a swig of his beer and followed me with his eyes – no longer mischievous but really afraid, as if he had come across a cannibalistic Oom – as I devoured one oyster after the other. Only at the end, after I had encouraged him several times to order something for himself, did he ask me in a whisper, ‘Oom, is that really nice?’

I regard it as a civilising task to teach someone to eat oysters, and although I am by nature – like all of us Bonades – impatient, especially with people who are full of themselves (that is to say, who don’t agree with me), I did my best to bring my nephew around, in the most avuncular way, to try just one oyster. And then just one more. There were, however, only half a dozen left, and we couldn’t order more, oysters being so scarce these days. My reward was Kleinjan’s considered opinion: ‘Yes, I must admit, Oom, they really are not so bad.’

Yes nefies and niggies, oysters really are not so bad. That is, if you eat them properly – without all sorts of additions that end up spoiling the pure, undefiled, immaculately innocent, genuine oyster taste with other tastes and flavours that are a real sin to the oyster connoisseur. Serve it in its shell. Open it yourself if you have the slightest fear that your waiter will allow the point of his knife to slip into the creature’s tender flesh. Ensure that it is served with its muscle still functioning, so that it can shrink. And don’t go on about cruel or barbaric treatment of a defenceless little creature. Such ultra-humanitarian excuses do not hold for the cook. Will he who gives in to them forsake duck liver pâté, or tortoise soup, or crayfish salad, or stewed eel? I would ask whoever holds forth along such lines to honestly guarantee that the mielie feels no pain when you strip it of its leaves, or the watermelon when you cut it open. Was it not the portly Oubaas Chesterton who put his vegetarian friend in his place by asking: ‘And why should only the salt and the mustard suffer?’

See to it, then, that your oysters are still alive, and eat them preferably in their virginal innocence without adding anything or with a drop of lemon juice, to soften slightly the saltiness still clinging to them. Do not fry them – that is to do them an injustice. Make no soup from them – that is to adulterate something delicious and pure into something complex and artificial. Eat them with a slice of bread and butter. If you have the opportunity, try them with some caviar in a sandwich. But never with red pepper, or onions, or anything else that could spoil the fine taste of the oyster. You should therefore also be careful about what you drink with them. You needn’t drink anything at all, for they contain enough water themselves; but if you must, then choose between a good beer, preferably a dark type, and a white wine that is not too dry and that should, of course, never be sparkling.

For us older Bonades – since, as you see, the younger generation still has much to learn – champagne with oysters is from the devil and not to be mentioned in front of Christian children – inter Christianos non nominanda sunt, as the old Father says. And never think that, if you bear these tips in mind, you will ever be in danger when eating oysters. They are the most innocent and delicious creatures ever to come out of the sea.

21 December 1945

Posted in English