Friday, June 29, 2012

Swallow the Leader

Sometimes I have the best job.

Like when a story I'm writing requires me to go to Rappahannock River Company's Merroir Tasting Room on the Northern Neck.

Sure, I was there to interview the owners and spend time with the guy who 's responsible for raising the baby oysters before they go out to the aqua-farms.

But it was with the chef, Pete, that I had the most fun.

So after spending the morning on the porch doing my interviewing, it was time for lunch.

I had a choice of where to eat: the tiny (but air-conditioned) bar inside, the porch (where I'd just been) or the yard under the shade of a huge, old tree.

Three guesses where I chose.

Despite being mere feet from the water, the river was still, almost glass-like today so it was still hot even in the shade.

Near the water's edge sat a giant pile of oyster shells.

My server was the personable girl who was the first oysterista hired when they decided to open the Tasting Room.

A pro.

She didn't even bring me a menu, just sat down across the wooden picnic table from me and started  chatting.

How hungry was I? Did I prefer beer or wine? Did I eat my oysters raw?

When I said wine, she lit up. "Then I have the perfect wine for you! The Wimmer Gruner Veltliner goes perfectly with everything on the menu."

She then punched my order into her phone and was off.

Sure enough, the wine was ideal: aromatic, fresh and just acidic enough.

Moments later, my dozen oysters arrived and I was treated to Rappahannocks (buttery and mild), Yorks (a "skosh saltier than the Stingrays" she said) and the Chincoteague-raised Old Salts (perfectly named).

With them came three housemade sauces: cocktail, tomatillo cocktail and red wine mignonette with shallots.

Good thing I had a dozen so I could try each variety with all the sauces.

As I slurped, two men were measuring all around me for the soon-to-be installed pergola to augment the big tree's shade.

When she brought out my enormous crabcake ("150% crab meat," she'd said), she insisted I keep my cocktail sauce in addition to the remoulade it came with.

"I'll tell you a secret," she said, leaning in. "I put that sauce on my crabcake once and Chef Pete saw me and asked if that was cocktail sauce on his crabcake. I told him so what, he had made the cocktail sauce and that they were great together. He said he couldn't condone it, but I always eat it that way."

You know I did the same after a recommendation like that.

Pete came out to join me once I finished eating and began telling me stories about his life.

My favorite concerned his wife of five years.

They'd lived across the street from each other as kids and he was her protector. They grew up, lost touch and married other people.

They had only occasional phone calls over the years. And then Pete's Dad died.

After a nasty divorce on both of their parts, he called her up out of the blue. He hadn't seen her in twenty years.

After a few long phone calls, he flew out to Colorado where she lived to get reacquainted.

"I fell madly in love with her that first night," he  said, grinning like a man still very much in love.

He immediately moved to Colorado and married her shortly thereafter.

And now they're living happily ever after in a house spitting distance from where he prepares the tastiest oysters in Virginia.

"I got lucky," he admitted as I finished the last of my Gruner Veltliner. "And that's not lost on me."

Ditto.

I may not make as much money as I'd like doing freelance writing, but every time I meet someone like Pete, or enjoy the pleasures of an unexpected lunch by the river on a summer day, I remind myself just how lucky I am.

(insert sound of slurp)

Incredibly so.

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