The Inspector-General of Misconception

BOOK: The Inspector-General of Misconception
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About the book

From eating oysters to making conversation; from bemoaning the lost art of speech-making to celebrating our national holidays, Frank Moorhouse—as the Inspector-General—applies his fastidious eye to the habits and ways of our society, and advises on all manner of things.

How does one dine alone at Christmas without attracting the pity of the world? Ask the Inspector-General of Misconception, who devotes a dispatch to the question of Handling Christmas Alone. Unless the restaurant is particularly sensitive and removes it, you will find at your place a Christmas cracker. Do not under any circumstances pull it yourself. Don't. And should one wash hands before urinating or after? And as for sex—before or after?

What about civility and Hitler? Should one accept an invitation to lunch with him in 1939? Does one accept and argue calmly and rationally for a change of his policies? And what if the invitation arrives in 1942?

Satirical, irreverent and bristling with Frank's dry and mischievous wit,
The Inspector-General of Misconception
is the ultimate compendium to Sorting Things Out.

TABLE OF CONTENTS

To Donald and Myfanwy Horne
–
for fine companionship and inspiration.

Children are never more serious
than when they are playing.

Essais
, Montaigne, bk. 1, ch. 23

ON GASTRONOMY
THE TRICKY, QUESTION OF THE LONE DINER

There are some restaurants that think the lone diner is bad for the image, or that he unsettles the other guests as Coleridge's Ancient Mariner disturbed the wedding guests in the poem.

The lone diner is, of course, the bane of waiters.

Lone diners fuss about wanting a well-lit table ‘so that they can read'. Or they demand an ostentatious second candle be brought to their table. They request a ‘heavy object or an additional fork' to use as a book weight to keep the pages of the book open.

Lone diners are often under the misconception that they are valued customers and that their observations on the food, wine, service, other customers, and the book they are reading is of first-rate importance and worthy of instant attention of everyone working in the restaurant.

Because lone diners are without a conversational companion, they become too preoccupied with their food and are inclined to find microscopic cracks in the plates.

They are often morbid and consequently drink to commiserate with themselves about their miserable, companionless life.

They talk to themselves which worries the other customers who often request to be moved to a table further away.

They ultimately take issue with the book they are reading. This causes them to break out in a shouting match with the absent author of the book and their own befuddled, agitated minds.

Or they laugh over-loudly and self-consciously at the comic sections of the book and say ‘hear hear' or ‘very nicely put' which worries the other customers.

They are likely to lean across to other tables and foist their penetrating observations and their newly-found amusement on the other diners.

Or they stop the staff and insist that the waiters listen to their rantings and make them stand, holding dishes destined for other tables, while they read some passage from the book which has tickled their poor miserable self-preoccupied fancy.

They are likely to make furious notes on their napkin using a ballpoint pen borrowed from the busy waiters, all the while muttering and spluttering in explosions of private, intellectual anger.

Eventually tiring of their book, they take to staring at the other customers.

They eavesdrop on other customers and write notes of these conversations which next day make no sense whatsoever.

They ultimately try to seduce other diners by eye-contact or by sending bold invitations, scribbled on a napkin, via the waiter.

They always dispute the bill and are always wrong.

They are the last to leave, and often need to be woken from a deep sleep, head down on the table because they have no real home to go to.

Or they ask for a fourth glass of port and then drink it with a flourish and leaning back, fall over backwards with the chair, scrambling briskly to their feet as if nothing unusual has happened.

They invariably leave some possession behind and have to come back the next day, chastened, and apologetic.

First Finding:
Lone diners universally stand charged with histrionic restaurant conduct and are hereby ordered to sit in the corner, read their wretched book, and be quiet.

THE GRAVE CASE OF AUSTRALIAN OYSTER ABUSE

The Office of the Inspector-General spent a great deal of time planning its recent sting which involved 1000 field officers disguised as oyster shells.

The subject of our investigation was shocking reports of nation-wide Oyster Abuse.

The operation was aimed at rooting out the gross misunderstandings of the oyster and the specious folklore which attends these dismal misconceptions.

Over the years, appalling stories had come in to our Eating Practices Unit, some of which were so ghastly that we were forced to pass them on to the Oyster Rights Commission (and by the way, we applaud the recent decision of the Oyster Rights Commission to allow oysters to enlist in the armed forces).

Oyster-eating was a part of the popular diet in the UK in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

In the eighteenth century, Dr Johnson's cat Hodge ate oysters; Hodge being a shortened version of the name Roger.

Readers will remember that Johnson himself went out to buy the oysters for Hodge lest his servants turned against the cat from being asked to indulge the cat in this way. Hodge was not Johnson's finest cat, according to Boswell, but, on Boswell's evidence, much loved by Johnson.

We ramble.

This appetite for oysters travelled to Australia with the first fleet.

The first settlers found the Australian coast rich in oysters, a food which was also enjoyed by the Aborigines. The Aboriginal oyster bars were a franchise called Middens and had the wonderful feature of gradually, over the years, rising higher and higher as the discarded shells accumulated until the Aboriginal oyster bars had panoramic views.

While there is no evidence that these Aboriginal oyster bars revolved, they could be considered the forerunner of the fashion to site restaurants at the top of highrise buildings.

The oyster bars of the new settlers, as did those of the Aborigines, served wild oysters.

Our technical department reports that the break in the oyster knowledge chain happened when the wild oyster became a source of lime for use as cement in the building boom of the early settlements. Around Australia this is recorded in the civic naming, as in ‘Limeburners
Creek', ‘Lime Street'.

The lime of the shells was used as the cement in the early days.

Lime, together with sand and water, makes ‘lime mortar' used to hold bricks together.

Australia was settled just before Portland Cement was formulated, which is a synthetic substitute for lime.

It is called ‘Portland' cement because it resembles the stone from Portland in Dorset (an oolitic limestone much used in English building construction which weathers very well and forms patterned contrasts). Those parts which are frequently rained on tend to stay white while those which are sheltered become darkened.

Of course, transporting cement by sea was a hazardous mission – if the cargo became wet, you had a rock-solid ship by the time you reached port.

So in Australia for some time, oysters and Aboriginal shell dumps were used for lime to make cement.

Not only the Aboriginal middens but also the live oysters were plundered for use as lime which, after a while, took precedence over the demand for oysters as food.

It required legislation to prevent the continued use of live oysters in building – now seen as one of the first pieces of ‘conservation' legislation.

The break in the chain of knowledge about oysters and how to handle them most likely occurred during the hiatus between the exhaustion of natural oysters (by the combination of the demand for building and eating)
and the time it took to create a commercial oyster-growing industry.

And then of course, refrigeration struck.

Home and restaurant refrigeration arrived in the 1920s with the development of a viable freezing compound (ammonia, ethyl chloride, or Freon) together with the invention of a compact refrigeration unit. We are not going to explain to private school-educated readers how refrigeration works.

The fear of contamination which obsesses the Australian household and ensures that everything is put into the refrigerator killed the oyster, literally. It also kills other foods such as cheese.

The Australian oyster growers and distributors, and the restaurant trade (with honourable exceptions) have been formally charged with the following:

Charge One:
The Marketing and Serving of Dead Oysters.

Most oysters served in Australia are dead. The oyster is killed by being opened too soon before eating and then refrigerated.

The oyster does not require refrigeration. If it is opened and then placed in a refrigerator it will die and take with it all its vitality, flavour, and its other gifts to the human palate.

An oyster will live for weeks or more if it stays in its unopened shell and is stored in a damp hessian bag in a cool dark place.

While a dead oyster is not itself dangerous to health and does retain something of the flavour of the oyster, it
falls far short of gastronomic perfection.

Oysters should be opened just before serving.

Recommended Action in the case of being served dead oysters: If a diner is served dead oysters, Our Office advises that the diner tip up the table and throw the bottle of wine into the backing mirror behind the bar. We advise throwing a tantrum as well. You could also uproot the potted ferns as you leave.

Charge Two:
The Serving of Rinsed Oysters.

The mass sellers of oysters in this country open the oysters at least a day before eating, they drain the oysters of their natural fluids and then rinse them with tap water thus taking away the oyster's salinity and the fluids.

The natural fluids are half the oyster's beauty and to remove the liquid is a brutal act of essence-cleansing.

The oyster should be eaten with its precious liquid straight from the shell to the mouth. This is known as the Immersion into the Sea Experience, very similar to diving into a wave.

Recommended Action in the case of essence-cleansing: As in Charge One.

Charge Three:
Of Pre-opening Oysters and then Placing ‘Butchers' Paper' Over the Pre-opened Oysters.

Having opened the oyster too soon before consumption, the practice of the oyster distributors is then to cover them with a sheet of what is known as ‘butchers' paper'. Hence, the oyster comes to have a taste resembling that of damp newsprint.

Recommended Action: If you taste newsprint in your oyster, burn down the restaurant.

Sadly, on the evidence before us, we cannot avoid bringing charges against the Australian restaurant eater.

Charge One:
Of Swallowing the Oyster Whole.

Some diners have been observed not chewing the oyster. While not wishing to be gastronomically pedantic, the oyster releases its abundant privileges only when chewed.

To swallow it whole is a way of ‘half-having' an oyster. This Office is opposed to half-having anything.

Recommended Action: If frightened by the idea of chewing an oyster, you should take a deep breath, close your eyes, and try to nibble at the oyster while it is in your mouth. Later, when you feel at ease with the sensation, you may try opening your eyes. If the inability to chew the oyster remains, call my secretary for an appointment.

Charge Two:
Of Not Eating the Muscle of the Oyster.

This also carries with it the charge of avoiding the ‘work' of the meal. The oyster should not be detached from its muscle (the abductor muscle) by the opener but by the diner. This is part of the diner's work. The edge of the fork will serve to cut the muscle (see on knives, below).

The oyster muscle is succulent and of a digestible texture.

Charge Three:
Of Eating the Oysters with a Fork.

The Office would prefer the return of the pre-genteel, eighteenth-century oyster-eating practice where the eater holds the oyster shell near the mouth and scoops
the oyster out into the mouth with an oyster-eating knife, at the same time imbibing the oyster's juice.

Any connoisseur worthy of his or her oyster carries his or her personal oyster knife while out on the town.

Charge Four:
Of Living in Mortal Fear of Oysters and Oyster Inhibition.

We suspect that the mortal fear of the oyster and the aesthetic inhibition are connected. That at a deep existential level, they are both expressions of the diner's relationship with Life (if a diner would like to talk with us privately about this they may call our secretary and make an appointment).

About fear of death from oysters: We concede that after rain, the runoff from the urbanised shores of the river or lake may carry contamination which then enters the oysters' diet. Unfortunately, this cannot be detected by smell. A rotting oyster smells foul but a contaminated oyster does not necessarily have a distinctive smell.

In restaurants which do not have high standards of food selection, handling and preparation, do not eat river or lake oysters after heavy rain.

With that matter out of the way, we have now to confront another source of oyster-eating inhibition which comes from the resemblance of the oyster to human semen and, paradoxically, on closer examination, we find that the folds of the fringe of the oyster resemble the female labia. There is a folkloric recognition of this resemblance to the female genital in the expression, ‘I enjoyed her oyster'.

Hence the oyster carries within its shape, essence,
and appearance elemental images from all our most fundamental origins. But more, the oyster, being a tidal creature of both the sea and the land, is deeply related to the primeval origin of the species.

We should always spare a moment of contemplation of these matters when taking the sacramental oyster to our mouths.

From this resemblance to the semen, of course, comes the cockeyed (ha ha) male mythology about eating oysters to restore one's sexual capacity.

Connoisseurs' Corner:
Points in Contention about which No Ruling Will be Made.

The question of the time of the year to eat or not eat oysters: There is a European rule that one should never eat oysters unless there is an R in the month; however, just to confuse the matter, oysters are legally sold from August.

This was to avoid eating the oysters during their breeding period. But the breeding time of oysters varies from country to country and from part of the country to part of the country and is changed by methods of cultivation.

The problem of grit in the oyster: This depends entirely on the care of the opener. Grit in the oysters is not ever, ever, ever to be removed by rinsing.

It can be removed with the point of your knife or by using a wooden toothpick or by using the corner of a clean silk handkerchief.

Restaurants sometimes use a brush but it should not be too wet nor used too vigorously.

About the temperature at which oysters should be served, there is gastronomic argument.

Oysters can be served on ice for the look of it but it is not required for preservation; however, oysters are ambient creatures – that is, raw – and perhaps they are happiest served in the temperature in which they normally live.

Pacific oysters should perhaps be served nearer room temperature.

The eating of each oyster is to be followed by a mouthful of wine (not a fruity wine, more a sancerre or chablis, or a sauvignon blanc or champagne, or as Sandra Grimes would argue, beer). The time between the eating of each oyster should be punctuated by quiet conversation, singing, or humming, for ‘the oyster is a gentle thing, and will not come unless you sing' (we have no earthly idea what Hazlitt meant when he said this).

Time should also be used to contemplate the oyster and its strange existence, perhaps by reverie or by recalling oyster experiences in distant lands, or experiences of another nature from personal lust.

Rock oysters: A pedant's guide to eating

  1. The first oyster is to be eaten
    au naturel
    as a way of honouring the creature and savouring the immersion in the sea experience.
  2. The second oyster is to be eaten
    au naturel
    if the immersion in the sea experience still beckons.
  3. The third oyster is to be eaten with ground pepper (or if the immersion in the surf still beckons, eat the third
    au naturel
    , or continue until the salty experience palls).
  4. The fourth oyster can be taken, again, with ground pepper.
  5. This is the point to take in bread. Protein sometimes seeks the company of cereal grain as a refreshment to the palate. The fifth oyster may be the point to introduce the squeeze of lemon or lime.
  6. The sixth oyster may also be taken with a squeeze of citrus.
  7. At the seventh oyster the diner should return to taking the oyster
    au naturel
    as a way of re-establishing connection with the fundamental oyster flavour.
  8. The eighth oyster is the time to take the leap to the sauce or vinaigrette.
  9. Likewise with the ninth, sauce or vinaigrette.
  10. The tenth may be taken any way you wish.
  11. Likewise the eleventh.
  12. The twelfth oyster is to be taken
    au naturel
    always, as a way of honouring the creature with whom you have been communing and to mark your departure from the dish.

Now that regional oysters are often available at restaurants as a mixed plate, the order of eating is important. We suggest you seek the advice of your food and beverage attendant.

Pacific oysters generally require sauce or citrus juice after the second oyster because sometimes the Pacific leaves a heavy footprint on the palate.

We came across further troubling matters in the
jurisdiction of national identity.

We found that almost without exception, Australians claim ‘the best oysters in the world'.

We also found that, central to the Australian identity and the Australian belief system, is the tenet that ‘Australia has the best seafood in the world'.

Why was it that Australians would want to claim this as so important a part of their identity?

BOOK: The Inspector-General of Misconception
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