“For it is said that humans are never satisfied, that you give them one thing and they want something more. And this is said in disparagement, whereas it is one of the greatest talents the species has and one that has made it superior to animals that are satisfied with what they have.”
― John Steinbeck, The Pearl
I’ve always wanted to have my own string of real pearls so I was in awe when an out of town visitor actually found one in his oyster Tuesday night. I’ve never been a huge fan of raw oysters, but because they are a New Orleans staple I’ve attempted to grow a taste for them beyond Oyester’s Rockefeller (which is impossible for anyone to hate and fun fact: was invented in New Orlean’s restaurant Antoine’s). Now that I know I can find my own pearl? The taste of oysters just got a little sweeter.
Central to Southern Louisiana cooking, oysters are on most menus, and most tourist “to-do” lists. Before the BP spill in 2010, Louisiana was the largest producer of oysters in the US. Now they are second only to Washington. How ironic. The species of oyster found in The Gulf (crassostrea virginica) can also be found all along the Atlantic coastline. However, The Gulf tends to produce larger, plumper morsels. Cheaper than those harvested on other coasts, their water content, size and mild-flavor make them especially good for blue-collar and fine cooking. Thus there is no shortage of opportunity for me to go on a pearl searching oyster binge of my own.
Sure, maybe I am being a little erratic, but maybe you just don’t know how much I love pearls. Perhaps because they come from the sea, perhaps because they are created over time, perhaps because they have a long standing connotation with rarity and class. For this reason the word pearl also means “something precious or, choice,” for example, a pearl of wisdom. They aren’t as flashy as “real” gems and no human blood is spilled in their harvest.
The Pearl is also a Steinbeck parable about how humans shape their own destiny. The novella features Kino, an Indian pearl diver, who discovers a valuable pearl and is suddenly wrought with greed, abandoning his simple idyllic life to find social and economic advancement. Eventually, the pearl’s hold on Kino leads to the shooting of his infant son and he finally returns the pearl to the sea. Throughout the novel, the pearl, while the main point of symbolism, can only be defined be it’s beholder.
Pearls themselves are created when a parasite (turns out the sand thing is a myth) lodges their way into a living shell or mollusk’s soft inner body where it can not be expelled. In an attempt to defend itself, the mollusk’s body will secrete a smooth, crystalline, calcium carbonate called, nacre, or “mother of pearl,” around the irritant to protect itself. As long as the irritant is in the oysters body it will continue to expel layers upon layers of nacre until a pearl is formed.
Natural pearls only account for 1/1000th of the pearls on the market. Today, pearls are largely farmed in the South Seas and Japan. Oysters are then either taken from the sea or bread, and then surgically implemented with a foreign object. The cultivation of the pearl will take about 2-5 years.
Something about pearl harvesting really leaves a bad taste in my mouth. Part of me wants to march right down to Tahiti and tell those pearl farmers, “You leave those poor oysters alone.” The other part of me just wants to eat oysters. Then I settle on the fact that what I really want is a Tahitian vacation. Either way, even though finding a pearl at a dive bar just down the street from my house doesn’t mean I should launch a full on search for buried treasure, I still think it means I should up my oyster intake and chew very carefully. You never know when you’ll find something as rare as a naturally formed, un-harvested pearl.