It was a sunny but chilly Sunday afternoon on the Côte d’Opale. I stopped for lunch in Wimereux, having driven up from my hotel in Boulogne-sur-mer. I chose it at random on the map, Boulogne-sur-mer. I liked it because of the “-sur-mer” in the name, it reminded me of the fictitious town in Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, but when I arrived to see a rather dirty big port town I was a little disappointed. Wimereux, a 15 minute drive away, was more what I had wanted, I could tell this at first glance: Twisted little brick roads between charming old buildings advertising crabes and moules, and an ability to see the sea from almost everywhere.
I parked the car — a Mercedes something-or-other with every irritating, dinging, beeping feature that I’m too lazy to figure out how to turn off turned on by default — and walked down to the shore. I could already feel the wind coming in off the ocean. Large stone stairs lead down to a rocky beach where a couple in hooded sweatshirts sat watching their kids and dog run toward and away from the moving water as it receded and then slid back up the beach, their toes getting just close enough to the cold English Channel that ending up ankle-deep became a real danger. They were having fun. Across the water you could actually make out tall white cliffs, but whether they were the white cliffs or just some others on an inward-curving section of this same coast, I don’t know.
I sat for a while and watched. Reflecting. Thinking. Pondering. Contemplating the shit out of so much shit you would just not fucking believe it, is what I was doing. Gulls were flying around.
It was lunch time. After enough contemplating to work up un grand appétit, I walked back up the stairs from the beach and toward the shops and restaurants to see what was on le lunch menu. I am not one who generally eats what comes from the sea. All waterways flow to the sea, and the sewage pipes of no nation make an exception. The sea, full of dead things. The sea, the world’s toilet. The sea, that big moist hole where the world’s dead matter rots and festers. The last place I’d ever want to reach in and pull back something to eat. I sort of hate it.
The outside tables of each cafe, restaurant and brasserie were surrounded by diners, diners reaching into big steaming pots and pulling out tiny black shells clamped tightly shut, prying them open, ripping out the insides and piling the now-broken shells high onto scrap plates in the middle of the table.
Muscles. If I had the patience to give it enough thought, there’s probably a lesson about death there, or at least an insightful observation. But I don’t have the patience to give it enough thought, and get instead an instinctive sort of dread, a dread at seeing and thinking about pulling these little alien black creatures from the sea — the sea, that place of death and cold where we throw our shit and try not to think about how there seems to be more than just a little we don’t understand or know about it — pulling these black creatures without arms or legs or even eyes or anything else that’d put them on some kind of level with animals we understand and don’t fear, serving them in big black pots right on your table, prying them open and eating the little blobs of flesh inside, and piling their dead husks up right there on plate next to the one you’re eating off of. I watch and I get feelings of confusion tinged with fear, the same feeling I imagine alien abductees get, the same feeling I used to get watching high school pep rallies, a feeling that what you’re seeing is altogether alien.
The fact that every restaurant in every town I’d stopped in along the coast was boasting moules did not however escape my attention, and made it very clear that this was, were one to want the Côte d’Opale experience, a thing to be had. I entered a restaurant on the corner and took a seat at an empty table. The restaurant was old, but well-kept. The floor was made of small colorful tiles. The tablecloth and place mat were white and heavy. Cups on saucers. The chairs, solid and wood. No paper or plastic here. This is one thing I like. This is what I expected of France. The waiter approached me and asked point-blank: “Apéritif?” I had come home.
I asked for the menu, and he handed me a thin cloth-bound book that looked like it’d seen many years of wear. I paged through the options. I studied each dish. I compared meal to meal. I don’t read French. Nor do I speak it. Yes, monsieur, a small carafe of the house red, please? The rioja? I mean, uh, the rouge? Yes, rouge, small. Carafe. Small carafe. I still didn’t know what anything on the menu was. But I did see it: Moules. The prospect was still sickening. The black pot, cauldron-like almost; the plate of dead shell parts, piled high; that cracking noise they were sure to make as I pried them open and the tearing of the little ligament thingy where the two shell halves meet and the sea my God the sea the smell of the sea still on them. I started to sweat.
I couldn’t do it. I compromised and went for the crab. Yes it’s from the sea, but at least crabs at least have legs and eyes and a face, something you can understand. And if I left this place on the sea which apparently prided itself so well on its seafood, well, I just might regret it.
The crab was course number one on the menu I ordered, the second being something that I think contained beef, followed by a final cheese plate. A cheese plate. Now there’s something a man can look forward to.
The waiter came and whisked my silverware away, replacing it with strange utensils I’ve never seen before. One looked like a large nutcracker, in the shape of a crab’s claw, and oh God Jesus I think that must be for busting open the crab’s body. I swallowed hard. The other utensil was something that was obviously meant to be used for picking and scraping at things. It looked like it belonged in a dentist’s office. I had no idea what to do with these things, and started to dread the grisly mess that awaited me.
Finally, out came the crab. He was accompanied by four small shrimp and the first side of salad I’ve ever actually been glad to receive. I stabbed my fork at the salad, taking small bites, chewing slowly but knowing as I looked into the cold, black antenna-extended eyes on my plate that I couldn’t put it off forever. It wouldn’t be long before I had to… crack open this sea creature’s carcass and, taking my best guess as to the purpose of the other tool, scrape out and eat his insides.
Me taking the claw-shaped shell cracker into my left hand is one of those rare occasions in life where I think it’s really warranted to describe it as being done gingerly. With my right hand — index finger and thumb, actually — I took the right claw of the crab and slowly, carefully… The crack was the same cracking noise I’ve always imagined your leg would make when it twists around 180 degrees in a skiing accident. It occurs to me that cracking open the claw of a crab with a cracker which itself looks like the claw of a crab is sort of morbid in the same way hamburger joints with happy burger-eating cow mascots is sort of morbid. The shell broke cleanly in half and could easily be pulled apart into two sections. I took up the scraper and poked it into the now-freed piece of crab claw, open like a tunnel at the cleanly-broken hole. Scraping around, trying to pull out the white and (what I assumed was the) edible part, all I could think of was how in addition to the edible white meat I was scraping tendons and veins and Jesus I don’t even know what else a crab has inside this exoskeleton, exoskeleton for fuck’s sake.
The taste was not devoid of the taste of the sea. People will tell you that seafood that is good and fresh does not taste like the sea. These are the same people who will tell you that WWF is real, unable for reasons that I don’t understand to cop to the obvious truth right in front of them. I have never in my life tasted seafood that did not taste like the sea. It does not exist, this sea-flavor-free seafood. No matter how it’s cooked, no matter how fresh, no matter what spices and seasonings are employed, it will never be rid of the death and the sewage in which it has for so long steeped.
But I continued. My French waiter was extremely polite and attentive, and though I couldn’t understand a damn word he said, I got the distinct impression that he was genuinely concerned that I enjoy my meal. The French, I have found, with the exception of a couple of bitchy little Frenchmen I met in Pamplona, are entirely undeserving of their reputation for rudeness and snobbery. They are on the whole quite helpful and friendly, and I could not hurt this man’s feelings.
I ploughed ahead with the crab. The claws had proven to be the easy part, the legs less so but manageable. Now all that was left was the crab’s… torso? Body? Head? … Thorax? You know, the main part. I couldn’t figure out how to get it open. It was far to big to fit comfortably in the claw-shaped cracker, and I didn’t see any openings into which I could jimmy the scraper and pry it apart. Maybe I had to put it in the cracker and try as much as I could, then turn the crab around and crack him the other way, and hope the two cracks in his shell meet in the middle and he breaks in half, like a graham cracker along its perforation? Sounds good to me. I wedged him into the CSC as far as he would go, face first, and cracked. OK, OK, that went pretty good. I turned him around and and did the same, and he did in fact look like the slightest bit of effort would break him apart. I set the CSC aside, grabbed both sides of his shell with my hands, and gently, very gently … oh sweet mother of shit what is this greenish-brown goo leaking out of the crab? Oh my God this is it this is the very thing I’ve been fearing about the sea this is it this substance right here materialized right inside this crab.
I must have made some kind of commotion when I dropped him back on my plate, or maybe even screamed a little, because the waiter came over to see what was going on. There wasn’t really a good way to explain my hyperventilating or the terrible crab faux pas I’d just made, and that’s when it happened.
I have, all my life, attracted good samaritans who want to set me right when I’m exhibiting my incompetence in anything. Why they can’t just be embarrassed for me and pretend it’s not happening, I don’t know, but it only takes one gutter ball at the bowling alley for the old codger who’s been bowling all his life to hobble across 7 lanes of bowlers to reach me, put a Parkinson’s-addled old hand on my shoulder, and start trying to show me how to bowl. My first scratch on the pool table, and somehow he’s there in the bar too. In a way, I’d known it was going to happen. I’d known ever since he set those god damned utensils in front of me. Like a psychic premonition, I could see it playing out in my mind, even when I was only on the salad.
He stooped over me and put his right arm over my shoulder, the way parents do when they show their kids how to cut with a knife a fork. The scraper in one hand, steadying the crab with the other, he smashed through the right and left sides of the crab’s breast revealing what I do have to admit was the mother lode of crab meat I’d have been looking for if I enjoyed the taste of dying things that live in shit. I smiled and laughed and shook my head in an “oh yeah I get it now” way, hoping he’d go away and we could both just forget how embarrassingly ignorant I am when it comes to crab anatomy.
I think he was pained by the amount of crab meat I still hadn’t discovered when I made it clear that I was finished with the first course. I would have explored further but by this time the greenish-brown goo was mingling with other things on my plate and, actually, now that I think about it, my inability to control the goo in a sanitary manner may be why he wore his pained expression, not a waste of meat.
The second course passed mostly uneventfully. It was in fact beef, though it was some sort of lining from some kind of organ, which had a surprisingly good taste but was disconcertingly soft like tissue, so soft you could push your tongue right through it without having chewed at all, and I will say no more about that.
Finally, the cheese plate. Back in my element. Part of me hoped I could redeem myself in the eyes of the waiter; I like to think I know my way around a cheese plate. He brought it out and I scanned around the dial: Camembert at 12, Emmenthaler at 3, something I’m not familiar with at 6 but that’ll be your goat-influence right there for sure, Roquefort at 9. Hmm, no grapes or walnuts, though; nothing to help clear the ol’ palette… and it was as I was taking stock of all this that I realized to my horror that I’d started absent-mindedly eating the very cheese plate I was preparing to eat and what’s more that I had dived right in to the six-o’clock position thereby ruining any possibility of enjoying the weaker cheeses by starting with a stronger one.
It was at this point that I realized that the waiter — my waiter, my friendly, helpful waiter — would never respect me. He would smile politely and take my money, but he would never respect me. This classy land, with its apéritifs and its old colorful tile floors and its cheese plates… I was not worthy of it. He offered me no digestif, the waiter, and I could not blame him.