While my father was studying economics at the American University in Washington, DC, he made a living as a pastor in a farming region not far from Ocean City, Maryland. During the week, our family of four lived in the political capital of the world, and over the weekend, we stayed in a little parsonage at the center of a black American farming community in rural Maryland.
Now, everyone in this community knew the preacher's son loved fried oysters, and so they made sure to send a basket or bowl of them to the parsonage on Saturday afternoons. Or, when my father paid a sick member of the congregation a home visit on Sunday evening to perform communion with a portable set (white wafers and little glasses filled Welch's grape juice, not wine—my father was a Methodist), and if I happened to be with him, the ill person would come alive and make a family member deep-fry some oysters for me, the son of the man of God.
During Sunday school, which I had to attend, the kids in the congregation would find ways to make me see how much they hated me. For many years, I thought this hate was a consequence of my being black African and them being black American. But many years later, I found the real answer in Maya Angelou's I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. In that book, Angelou describes how her mother prepared fried chicken only when the pastor visited, and she and her brothers, who rarely got to eat anything, would watch the pastor eat all of the meat in the house. That preacher eating a plate of fried chicken in Angelou's book dissolved into the preacher's son eating a plate of fried oysters in the homes of poor black folks in Maryland. No matter what kind of black I was, those hungry kids would have hated me.
That said, I never stopped loving fried oysters, and I devote at least one meal a week to them without plunging a whole family into despair. When fried oysters are done right, which is certainly the case at Bateau on Capitol Hill and Perihelion Brewery on Beacon Hill, the experience is that of eating a strange sea creature. It has a crunchy exoskeleton and a body that, when decomposed, reveals the depths of the sea. I always imagine that eating an alien would be like eating an excellent fried oyster: You'd taste deep space, galactic dust, gas clouds, the trail of a comet in the alien's soft core.
But what makes an oyster so wonderful is precisely this: It does not taste like itself but where it spent its life. And the richer its surroundings, the richer the oyster. This is why a great fried oyster is the best model for the life of an epicurean—a lover of sensual pleasures. Flesh that's surrounded by beautiful things, constantly devours rich foods, records those experiences, and concentrates them in the body. You yourself are enriched. An alien would prefer the meat of an epicurean.
Now, there is an expression in Japanese that rings the cracked bell of my soul. It is kuidaore—it means to go bankrupt because you spent so much money on extravagant foods. This is the economics of an epicurean. Hoarding cash is just plain ugly. Making money just for the sake of making more money is monstrous. The economics of the epicurean is—to use the title of the third track on Billy Paul's 1975 album When Love Is New—to "Let the Dollar Circulate."
The movement of money is a state of economic bliss. Cash that enters your purse or bank account should always be like a one-night stand (met at a bar, went to your place, fucked, gone in the morning) rather than a marriage. As soon as it arrives, money must soon leave to purchase something really rich and dense and complex, like goose eggs.
This kind of egg is expensive (the price of one goose egg at Pike Place Market Creamery, $2.50, could buy you a dozen chicken eggs at Safeway), but they are huge and have a yolk that, when properly prepared, leaves a permanent impression in your body. Indeed, I would love to eat one goose egg after another for hours in the morning. But I can't, not because of money, but because they are just too rich. I'm a human, and I can handle one only every so often—a god could forever eat and go broke because of goose eggs.
I can, however, eat lots and lots of the eggs of another animal: fish. Caviar is famously not cheap, which is why, in the popular imagination, it's associated with rich people. But the truth of the matter is, the rich fear spending money. Anyone who has a wealthy friend or relative knows how tightfisted upper-class people can be. And with good reason. For them, the end of money is money, which, in our times, rarely comes into contact with the conductor of experience, the flesh. The days of Scrooge McDuck are no more. The rich can't dive into pools of vapid cash and coins, swimming and reveling in the stuff. Money is just ones and zeros—data in a server.
The best caviar is expensive. And you want the best, because it does amazing things in your mouth. Here is an example: After eating a tiny spoonful of the Israeli osetra at a delightful place on Eastlake called Seattle Caviar Company (it costs about $135 an ounce, but you can enjoy it as part of a tasting plate for $30 along with a glass of something dry and bubbly), I found that I missed one egg on the tip of the spoon. I took a sip of the dry sparkling wine, waited for a moment, and then placed the single egg on the tip of my tongue, pressed and burst it, and almost immediately it exploded with an intensity you would not expect from something so small.
Seattle Caviar Company also offers a mini caviar pie—a slice of brittle bread, a layer of mayonnaise, a ring of chum salmon Ikura, another circle of golden whitefish caviar, and a black core of marvelous paddlefish caviar. We have heard of "Rapper's Delight"; this pie is a delight made for an epicurean. No, it is not cheap, but epicureans are not about money—they are about pleasure.
Sometimes first-rate pleasures are not so expensive, which is the case with the dish ceviche—raw seafood cured in lemon juice. In Seattle, I have not found a ceviche experience surpassing that of San Fernando Roasted Chicken on Rainier Avenue South. Their Peruvian ceviche mixto is $19, and it comes with sweet potato and fried corn.
My point is, do not die with lots of money in your account. Enter the grave or go up in smoke as a body dense with the riches its life has experienced.