[Note: This column first appeared on The Huffington Post.]
It was a dark and stormy night. I’d just spent close to six hours in traffic, at least some of which had been caused by an escaped kitten scampering around on I-95 outside Providence. My reward, on arriving in Wellfleet, Massachusetts, for the tenth annual Wellfleet Oyster Festival, was an old fashioned glass brimming with ice, Gosling’s ginger beer, and Myer’s Dark Rum.
For all the pedants out there, lurching zombie-like toward the comments section, I’m aware that the Dark ’n’ Stormy (a trademark of Gosling’s) is properly made with Gosling’s Black Seal in a highball glass. I was in no position to care, and the following night I reprised my devil-may-care flouting of the rules by mixing a Dark ’n’ Stormy with the delicious, chocolatey Kraken Black Spiced Rum.
The Kraken depicted on its bewitching, double-handled jug is a giant octopus, but the word also refers to a giant squid—in fact, to any colossal sea monster. Tennyson gave the Kraken life in this sonnet, which speaks of its “[u]nnumber’d and enormous polypi” and reassures us that, for the time being, “[t]he Kraken sleepeth.” It sounds rather like Cthulhu, the half-bat, half-octopus aquatic megafauna dreamed up by Providence’s favorite son, H. P. Lovecraft.
I had nautical horror on the brain all weekend. What goes with seafood, rum, and howling, wind-lashed nights blacker than a lobster’s armpits? Keeping it literal, we have classics like The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms (1956), Jaws (1975), and Mega Shark vs. Giant Octopus (2009). The Pirates of the Caribbean franchise has tentacles in slippery abundance. How about John Carpenter’s seaside classic The Fog (1980) or James Cameron’s The Abyss (1989)? The Lovecraft fanatic might prefer Dagon (2001) or the silent short The Call of Cthulhu (2005).
At the risk of sounding unforgivably pretentious, I recommend you prepare a batch of Clams Casino or Oysters Rockefeller, whip up a pitcher of Dark ’n’ Stormies, and watch Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal (1957). It isn’t a horror movie, though it does feature the bubonic plague, Death in a wetsuit, and the line “A skull is more interesting than a naked woman.” Still, its beautiful beaches give Turks and Caicos a run for their money, and its striking, high-contrast imagery is Halloween to the core. (Commenters: Were Antonius Block [Max von Sydow] and Jöns [Gunnar Björnstrand] by any chance the basis for these two?)
Maybe I’m just squeamish about sea monsters. In the front matter of Moby-Dick, William Paley’s Natural Theology is quoted: “The aorta of a whale is larger in the bore than the main pipe of the water-works at London Bridge, and the water roaring in its passage through that pipe is inferior in impetus and velocity to the blood gushing from the whale’s heart.”
I like my seafood a bit more manageable than that. Wellfleet oysters, crassostrea virginica, are substantial, briny but not overwhelmingly so, and do not shoot geysers of blood when you bite into them. They also make for the finest oyster stew I’ve ever eaten—which, apart from all this, and staggering quantities of raw oysters on the half-shell, is the best feature of the Festival.
I’ve tried unsuccessfully to determine how the stew is made—the stew-masters are secretive, and will cop to nothing but the use of “a little salt and pepper”—but I can say confidently that the trick is not skimping on butter, cream . . . or oysters. Eight dollars will get you more and fatter oysters in a cup of Wellfleet stew than twice that would get you in any restaurant, unless my brine-addled mind was playing tricks on me. You can fill any remaining stomach volume with sausage, roasted sweet corn dusted with sea salt and Old Bay, fried dough, and clam cakes. And remember, never eat an oyster with a funky smell, or chances are you’ll find yourself sprawled on the beach, bargaining with Death—and it won’t involve a friendly game of chess.