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Not to be Forgotten

My First Sea Urchin


I’ve never been one for the “look-at-all-the-fabulous-food-I-get-to-eat” approach to food writing.  Many of my lunches are quick affairs--a melted cheese or salad eaten hastily at the kitchen counter.  I’m a working girl and the deadlines call me back to my office.

However, somehow my life took an interesting twist recently when Lou brought me into the circle of the lunch club.  It’s a quiet under-the-radar group that meets very occasionally.  Perhaps I’ll reveal more in time.  Or perhaps not. (I’m worried, in fact, that even this post may jeopardize my good standing.) It occurs during the off hours of a certain beautiful restaurant in town, hosted by a beautiful chef and attended by some wonderful cooks who bring gifts.  Okay, that’s all I’m saying. Except that recently, at one of these lunches, I had the good fortune to taste my very first sea urchin. 

Those who, like I, have lived their lives in sad ignorance of the sea urchin can see in the photo above that it is a spiny creature.  Beneath those porcupinelike bristles is a shellfish, and you have to crack through underneath and then use a spoon to scoop out just a tiny sweet dollop of meat, which in this case (should I tell you this?--oh, okay) is the sex organs. 

But really--just think of it as a cousin of the oyster.  It has the salty fresh liquor of the sea.  A great delicacy nowadays, though Lou tells me he ate them as a kid in Queens when his family had little money and his Italian mother was accustomed to using all aspects of fish that other people threw away.  I’ve been looking around for a Chinese recipe for sea urchin, or a Japanese recipe.  Something old.  No luck so far.

Anyway, it’s been more than a week since my first encounter with the first sea urchin.  I took its body home and have been letting it dry out on the porch.  I keep wondering why it made such a big impression on me.  My childhood had very little of the natural world, except our visits to the ocean at the New Jersey shore, where we were always happy in the salt and sand and bright light reflecting off the water, and I wonder if that’s why I love the taste of all things of the ocean?  In her “A Book of Middle Eastern Food” (1970), I think Claudia Roden captures this feeling of humans coming to the sea and its creatures with a sense of joy.  Just beautiful. 

“Hunting for ritza (sea urchins) is a favourite pastime in Alexandria. It is a pleasure to swim out to the rocks, dive into the sea and discover hosts of dark purple and black, spiky jewel-like balls clinging fast to the rocks, a triumph to wrench them away, and a delight to cut a piece off the top, squeeze a little lemon over the soft, salmon-coloured flesh, scoop it out with some bread, and savour the subtle iodized taste, lulled by the rhythm of the sea.”

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A lovely story Laura.

    – Rachel Laudan (January 26 2009 at 9:03)

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