French Superiority

She set the massive plateau in the center of the tiny table, her thin arms revealing a sinewy musculature acquired from long years of carrying plates to and from the kitchen, her gauzy blue tee-shirt announcing the restaurant’s name, Chez Francois, in blocky white lettering. Balanced precariously on a metal stand on a lopsided table set on an ancient stone street next to a bustling harbor, the tray was weighty with crushed ice and layered with clams and oysters, whelks and mussels, periwinkles and lobster and as requested, an equal number of chunky lemon slices. In clipped English, she warned us not to eat from just one side, lest the entire tray and all its contents slip back into the ocean. Young and old, man and woman, accountant and farmer, married and lover slurped oysters, peeled mussels and shrimp from their shells, and forked into plates of grilled dorado fished from Sete’s waters, a bottle of local inexpensive Provençal wine protruding from dripping ice buckets set on tables clothed with a tear of butcher paper. A handsome Frenchmen, in that way that all Frenchmen are handsome, shucked oysters and clams without pause, a cigarette dangling from perfectly pouted lips. We ate in silence, only occasionally groaning with delight as the cold, salty ocean depths lingered on our tongues, while overturning emptied shells onto the melting ice, an internationally recognized symbol of triumphal bivalve bliss.

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