A Summer Oyster Tradition

We have a summer tradition to picnic on oysters oh-so-fresh from their beds at Taylor Shellfish Farms on Chuckanut Drive.  Just south of Bellingham, WA, the retail shop has a few wooden tables, a grill and an amazing view of the San Juan Islands.  We generally bring along chilled Muscadet or a six-pack of Hefeweizen, lemons, hot sauce and if we've really thought ahead, fresh horseradish to grate.  After shucking and slurping 26 shigoku oysters (this time all they had left) we merrily toss the empty shells onto the beach beneath our feet. 

I like to theme read and for this occasion I re-read the slender and delightful Consider the Oyster by M.F.K. Fisher.  Basically a love letter to the oyster and all the joys of eating them, you can find an excellent review and excerpt here from NPR's "You Must Read This." All of Fisher's writing is memoir through food and she is right up there in my Favorite Writers Pantheon.  


“It seems to me that our three basic needs, for food and security and love, are so mixed and mingled and entwined that we cannot straightly think of one without the others. So it happens that when I write of hunger, I am really writing about love and the hunger for it, and warmth and the love of it and the hunger for it… and then the warmth and richness and fine reality of hunger satisfied… and it is all one.” 

~ M.F.K. Fisher


In the chapter, "A Supper to Sleep On" Fisher writes about the pleasures of oyster stew.  It may sound incongruous, but while growing up in very landlocked South Dakota my mother always made oyster stew on Christmas Eve, as her mother had.  It seems to be a Catholic tradition for many families with a link to Irish immigrants.  The recipe is simple:  heat milk and a generous amount of butter slowly on the stove, drop in oysters with their reserved liquor, cook until the edges curl and serve with freshly-cracked pepper and oyster crackers.  It is one of the coziest meals I know.  

Before enrolling in my freshman year at Boston College, my dad took me to the Union Oyster House where I ate oysters on the half shell for the first time.  I was eighteen.  Sitting at the festive red and white checked table, I felt so Bostonian and grown up as I gamely ate raw oysters and tried to act sophisticated.  I was relieved when I realized I actually liked them.

Later I moved to San Francisco where I lived around the corner from the historic Swan's Oyster Depot, an institution since 1912 and just this past March rated by Bon Appetit as the 20th Most Important Restaurant in America.  Needless to say, I spent many happy hours throwing back oysters at their counter.  And there was that one birthday where I ate a dozen oysters as my appetizer and then decided I should have another dozen for my main course.  Those were heady days.

In Seattle I started eating at The Brooklyn Oyster Bar where I discovered Taylor's Shellfish Farm. To give you an idea of how much I came to love them, while working a dull job in a high rise building downtown I would click on Taylor's website as soon as I turned on my computer in the morning.  The website had a soundtrack of waves lapping, seagulls crying, a sailboat clanking against a buoy and their wooden sign creaking in the breeze.  This was my meditative "nature" music throughout the day, which would transport me away from my cubicle.   They've since updated their website and cut this feature, but happily I no longer work in an office building and I can listen to this soundtrack live.

Christian and I ate oysters together on our first date in July of 2007.  Three years later, we served oysters on the half shell at the luncheon celebration after our (second) wedding at The Teahouse in Stanley Park. On a trip to Kyoto we had one of the best meals of our life at Grotto Kaiseki, one couse featuring a single fresh oyster accented with a drop of ponzu.  Someday, we will visit Cancale, the seaside town in Brittany famous for oysters, and then trawl through all the oyster bars in Paris.  

I have my own oyster shuckers and even an antique Weimar porcelain oyster plate, a gift from my Aunt Cindy.  This aunt married a Frenchman, deals in antiques and lives in Paris.  She is wholly responsible for my early life as a Francophile (In junior high, I wrote a report on the Louvre, talked my parents into sending me to French immersion summer camp and read Anais Nin).  This is the first oyster plate in my collection of one.  There will be more.

I can also feast my eyes on oysters anytime I need a fix by looking at Dutch still lifes, celebrating the fleeting pleasures of life.  I especially like "Still Life with Gilt Goblet" hanging in the Rijksmuseum by Willem Claesz Heda which he painted in 1635.  

Last week I got a dose of more stunning still lifes, including more with oysters, lemons and delicate wine goblets at the Vancouver Art Gallery's exhibit of 17th Century Dutch and Flemish Masterworkswhich inspired me to take a crack at my own still life at Taylor's:


Alfresco Naps

Picnics, bike rides, plump blackberries, swimming holes, ice cream cones, alfresco naps.....oh yes indeed, summer is on.  This Andrew Wyeth painting pretty much sums up the feeling of idyllic summer days for me:

Not that I get to do this delightful and healthy type of lazing as often as I'd like having an energetic toddler underfoot, but I do what I can.  We in the Burns clan like to nap and if it can be outside during a warm summer's afternoon with a breeze ruffling our hair, all the better.  In the house where I grew up, we had a downstairs porch for eating and an upstairs porch with a canopy bed for sleeping.  Here is my dad showing us how it is done (those hats do come in handy)...

I've been trying to give Xavier as many alfresco naps as possible, like this particularly delicious one...


This is one of my favorite photographs from last summer, taken in my sister's back yard when Xavier was just a wee little guy.  I mean, really, does it get any better than this?

I read that the brilliant Benjamin Franklin believed in taking "air baths" and he'd spend a few hours in his birthday suit every morning out of doors in every season.  The Japanese like to go "forest bathing" when they walk in the woods, considered very healthy for the body and mind. Surely then alfresco naps - in the buff or not - make for healthy, hearty and happy people.
  I'm certain I could find a study somewhere to back me up.  I'll do some research....right after a little snooze...


Black Shawl Remembers Crazy Horse

I visited the Crazy Horse Memorial for the first time this summer and it moved me beyond words.  The scale is so huge - far, far bigger than Mt. Rushmore - but it was the Indian Museum of North America that made the visit worthwhile.  I have studied the Sioux Nation but the beauty of the artifacts and the terrible history of the white man overrunning a culture, yet again, really resonated.  But that is the power of this place:  the memory of the ultimate resistance fighter Crazy Horse and the stories, the history, the culture are very much alive.  Korczak Ziolkowski, the original sculptor liked to quote these lines:  "When the legends die, the dreams end; and when the dreams end, there is no more greatness."  The legends, the dreams and the greatness are tangible, I can breathe them in.

Having just come from my brother's wedding full of Lakota ceremony and also celebrating my third anniversary, I found myself welling up with tears when I came across this beautiful poem in the museum about a wife's love for her husband written by the talented poet Irene Latham.  The gift shop didn't sell copies of the broadside so I wrote to Irene to inquire about buying one from her.  Sadly, she doesn't have any more, but we struck up a correspondence, I ordered her latest book of poems and I can't wait to meet her in Seattle or Alabama someday.  You might also enjoy reading her blog Live Your Poem.  I do, very much.

Black Shawl Remembers Crazy Horse

The old ones like to say
memory is like riding a trail
at night with a lighted torch.
And so it does not surprise me
that your face has been swallowed
by darkness, your voice black as
the wounded wings of a crow.

But sometimes the torch flares,
illuminating the way your body
folded itself against mine,
how the last time you loved me
you dipped your thumb in red paint
and covered the part in my hair,
marking me a woman greatly loved.

When the rattlesnake came into
the lodge, you could not crush it.
And you couldn't save our daughter
from the white man's coughing disease.
In the end, the Black Hills were lost, too -
the heart of everything that is.

I wasn't your only wife. But I am
the one who remembers. I whisper
your name and it drifts as snow
across the prairie, then melts
and is gone.

~ Irene Latham


Better Than Planned

Xavier is suddenly 14 months old and I have been wanting to have a baby blessing ceremony for him.  Sadly he has long since outgrown the beautiful cream baptismal gown with yellow lace trim my mother passed down to us, which all my siblings and I wore for our own baptisms.  I grew up Catholic and am now the happy godmother to my two nieces, Fiona and Mabel.  But as Christian and I do not participate in any organized church, I wanted a more non-denominational blessing for Xavier outside in a beautiful natural setting. We asked Matthew and Rebecca to be godparents which seemed fitting as Rebecca had flown out to be our doula for his birth. Our extended family is dispersed across North America and our trip to South Dakota was the first time my side of the family has gathered together since he was born. I did not want to intrude on the wedding festivities but it is such a rare treat for us all to be in the same place.  I was imagining something simple:  a small circle of family down by the lake in the early morning sun, drinking coffee and saying sweet things about my son.  Then we would all kiss him and go for a swim.  I even memorized a poem by Gary Snyder for the occasion.  I love to read poetry but this is only the second poem I can remember learning by heart.

However as sometimes happens, events didn't quite turn out as planned.  During the week leading up to the wedding family members were staying in different cabins, wonderful parties were on-going and we simply didn't have a chance to gather especially for the blessing.  The Monday morning after the ceremony, we met briefly to say goodbye as everyone prepared to travel home.  Christian, Xavier and I were planning to head east to the Badlands before turning west again for the drive home to Seattle.  Matt and Rebecca suggested we stay with them that night when we passed back through Hot Springs.  So that is how we ended up having a bonus evening with the newly-married couple and enjoying an intimate and wholly unexpected baby blessing underneath a sky bright with stars.

After a spectacular day exploring the Badlands National Park, we arrived at the cabin around 10pm.  Matt's friend Chelsea prepared a midnight feast of the choicest bison filets, grilled asparagus and a salad.  Then Matt and Rebecca pulled their wedding bison hide blanket outside next the the campfire.  Xavier had slept more than usual in the car and during our hike, so he was happily rolling around on "Freedom" the bison who had fed the wedding party of 140 people for a week and then some.  The four adults clinked wineglasses and toasted to Xavier.  Matt is a Taurus, just like my husband and my son, and he assured me he'll give me all the insights into raising a little bull-- like the importance of using reverse psychology for instance.  Matt and Rebecca then kissed Xavier, solemnly promised to love him and vowed to teach him their magical views on life. The coyotes began to howl in the distance and we joined in.  Then we all laughed and talked into the wee hours.  And I got to recite my poem:


The rising hills, the slopes,
of statistics
lie before us.
the steep climb
of everything, going up,
up, as we all
go down.

In the next century
or the one beyond that,
they say,
are valleys, pastures,
we can meet there in peace
if we make it.

To climb these coming crests
one word to you, to
you and your children:

stay together
learn the flowers
go light

Gary Snyder


Dakota Wedding

And now photos to add depth and context to my list poem....

An epic wedding all around, my dad says he's run out of superlatives to describe it.  He's right, photographs may very well tell it better.  140 guests traveled from NY, LA, England, Russia, Australia, South Africa and everywhere in between to meet in the sacred Black Hills of South Dakota to celebrate Matthew and Rebecca's union.  The couple lives most of the time in Brooklyn, but they took a road trip in western South Dakota early in their relationship and fell more in love with each other and the land.  For most of the guests it was a whole new world and for those of us who already knew South Dakota, it was a re-affirmation of a very special place.  Held on the Black Hills Wild Horse Sanctuary, it was a DIY shindig of the first order with friends and family cooking, organizing, hauling tables and playing throughout.  Big thanks to the local help and orchestration from Casey Gilbertson, Chef John Gilbertson, Amelia Rose Barlow, Nicholas Adamski, Loretta Afraid of Bear, Tom Cooke, Dayton Hyde and everyone else.  Rebecca picked out the bison in a field with the Lakota elder who shot it; this bison affectionately named "Freedom" who fed the wedding party, gave them their wedding hide blanket, skull and heart. Matthew attended the four day Sundance over the summer solstice, the same Sundance circle where the wedding ceremony was then held.  There was a sweat lodge and an opportunity to ride horses on the Pine Ridge Reservation, horses descended from the mount of Crazy Horse - not your ordinary trail ride.  The ceremonial and spiritual elements made the celebration even more meaningful. As you will see below, the wedding was one of those events I want to relive over and over.  Photos courtesy of my brother Patrick Burns and cousin Katie Markley.  Thank you most of all to you, Matthew and Rebecca, for bringing such an amazing community together.  We all love you.

Liam leaping into Cascade Falls

Flower Girls Fiona and Mabel

Burns Men

Auntie Sarah

Mom with Liam and Finn

My little family

Sofiah, sister of the bride, dances to a drum to clear space for the ceremony

Sofiah teaches dance and healing arts at Bamboo Yoga Play in Costa Rica

Father of the bride

Matthew and Rebecca

The Men's Circle, including Christian and Xavier (sleeping)

A beaming bride

Amelia gives the water blessing to the West

And to the East

Sisters of the groom, Mary Ellen and me

Sister and Parents of the Bride

Kneeling on their buffalo hide, as Robert reads the poem An Invitation by Oriah Mountain Dreamer

The bride in her vintage gown and veil

Mom sings Red River Valley, customized for the bride and groom

Smudging with Sage

Ceremonial Wasna, homemade by Matthew and Rebecca

Mabel, the flower girl goes strolling during the ceremony

The Sundance Circle with the Tree of Life in the center

Liam and Finn, the ring bearers walk the circle

Bringing the rings

Slipping on the rings


Mr. and Mrs. Burns walking out of the circle to ululations, before they run up the hill

The Tree of Life

Susan, mother of the groom and Amelia

Mobius Strip Wedding Rings

Christian and Xavier, my cowboys



Is that a Persian Cowboy?  Uncle Manny, Aunt Janet, Adam, Mary Ellen, Mabel & Andrew

Uncle Manny, Aunt Janet & Uncle Tom

Sassan, Judah & Jessica


Roni and Mary

Uncle Tom, Andrea & Adam

Patrick and Finn

Love like Pillars Series

Rowdy, Mary Ellen and Vanessa

Uncle Manny, Mom, Aunt Janet, Aunt Sandy, Aunt Rosie, Mary Ellen

Rebecca on the wedding buffalo hide blanket

Siblings and Xavier

Me and my little marshall (I found a SD Marshall badge for him to wear in Buffalo Gap)

Listening to toasts

My speech and gift of a champagne saber

Parents of the Groom, Parents of the Bride

Mary Ellen, Andrew and Miss Mabel

Prairie Signage

Still life with champagne saber, wildflower bouquet, buffalo hide and skull

Custom Hot Sauce, bottled by Matthew's Brooklyn Salsa Company as gifts for the guests

Tree of Life in the Sundance Circle