Sushi with Sacks

Written By: Orrin Devinsky

My close friend, Oliver Sacks, died 2 years ago. Together, we did many things, many times, but none more often than eating fish. He loved to eat fish. Salmon smoked or grilled, mackeral fresh, herring in all forms – raw, at peak fatness and pickled in brine (schmaltz in Yiddish), smoked and split (kippers), or fermented. He never met a sardine he didn’t like. For decades, often weekly, we ate sushi.

Twenty years ago, Oliver first visited our house in Bridgehampton. Driving out on the Long Island Expressway, in Queens, he renamed it the Long Island Crawlway. On that ride, I introduced him to Altoids. Hunger and compulsion led him to break my monotonous mindlessness of driving, with a sudden plea ‘Put these away, please. I cannot finish the tin myself.’ One lonely mint remained.

Oliver loved to swim and chose his destinations by proximity to lakes and pools. It poured the night we arrived, but he did not hesitate to enjoy a swim in our pool – graceful, powerful and rhythmic strokes, oblivious to the relentless missles of rain. The next day we swam in the calm shallow water of Sagaponack Pond. He donned his favorite orange swimcap, bewildered I didn’t have one. “I have an extra for you,” exposing a handful of extra caps in his swim bag. I declined. He outlasted me, fading away in the pond’s horizon, disappearing. He emerged hours later, as happy as I had ever seen him. Back home, invigorated, looking out on Sam’s Creek, he read me the draft of his upcoming book, An Anthropologist on Mars. A moment you wish you could bottle.

That night we went to Sag Harbor for sushi. Shortly before the food arrived, Oliver rose and proclaimed “I must stretch my legs”. I warned Deborah of his quirks. Reappearing 15 minutes later, a huge boat of fish had landed. I overordered, badly. Long after Deborah and I were stuffed, Oliver soldiered on, until no shiso leaf, masago egg, or mackerel morsel survived. His boyhood privations in England during the second World War taught him to consume all he was served, and, on some nights, what his friends could not finish.

That Sunday, after a morning swim at Long Beach, we kayaked from Sam’s Creek into Mecox Bay. Oliver was mesmerized by the fauna – egrets, swans, turtles, otters; but even more by the flora – phragmites, ferns, flowers, and grasses. He loved the peace, the pace, the movement, the nativity of this boat, and the long pauses of silence.

We frequented two casual sushi haunts near Oliver’s West Village apartment. In each, he had a favorite window seat and rituals – greeting staff, finding his cane a home, placing his back cushion, and surveying the auditory landscape to decide whether or not to use his hearing aids. Many medical gifts can be a blessing or curse. Indeed ‘pharmacology’ comes from the Greek ‘pharmkon’ which included medicines, poisons and spells. Early hearing aids exacerbated the loudness recruitment that often accompanies hear loss – the explosive growth in loudness when sound crosses the sensory threshold – rocketing voices and noises from inaudible to intolerable.

He brought case notes, scientific articles, or manuscript drafts. We glided between clinical neurology, salmon skins, chemistry and horse mackerel. Weather permitting, we ate outside at Miyaga, where one evening, I excitedly shared a web of speculations on autism, mutations, testosterone, diversity, and evolution. Oliver chimed in with questions, doubts, encouragements, patients’ stories, and curious facts. My ideas were fatally flawed but the animated, meandering conversation was intensely fun. An unpredictable swerve to profound experiential depth. Like a ping pong match in childhood where my wild unfettered shot somehow lands and comes back impossibly stronger and the inconceivable volley persists as we were both in the zone. Unplanned abandon and emergence. Intellectual life – whatever that is – never got better than it did that night. Leaving, a couple, invisibly sitting nearby, stoppped to say it was the most interesting dinner conversation they had ever heard.

We once brought Oliver to our favorite sushi place at the beach, Yama-Q. Oliver’s green Flair magic marker and a napkin were the tools of an anatomy class on uni. “These lovely echinoderms, relatives of sand dollars”… drawing the outside view with spines and then a flamboyant cross section. “Sea urchins were early stars of cinema. Ries made exquisite time lapse micromovies of sea urchin egg fertilization and development. Painleve, who famously said ‘science is fiction’, filmed the rhythmic beating of urchin tube feet…not to miss – the musical score is gorgeous…. The purple uni from Santa Barbara has anandamide in it – brain’s natural marijuana.” Our daughter Julie arrived separately with friends and stopped by our table to say hello. When she left, Oliver, who had met Julie many times, and had seen her an hour before, commented, ‘What a charming waitress. So friendly and bright.’ He was faceblind.

Oliver and I hated and loved the Japenese delicacy natto – pungent, fermented soybeans. We innocently asked new servers if they had natto, eliciting a reflex, as we neurologists enjoy. Instead of the knee jerk, the server’s face filled with amusement. When available, Oliver cautiously responded, “Let us think about it” but usually added, later, “No natto tonight”. Then mischievously whisper to me, “The Gringos know nasty natto!”

Oliver shared natto’s kinship with steak tartar. Steak tartar was invented by the necessity of Genghis Kahn’s warriors to avoid fires that would forewarn enemies. They rode with slabs of meat under the saddle, tenderizing with each bump. 150 years earlier, natto was discovered by Japanese samuri’s. While cooking soybeans for their horses, they came under attack and threw the beans in a straw sack and took off. Days later, bacteria fermented the beans. The soldiers loved them. “Both stories are probably apocryphyl,” Oliver lamented, ‘lets hope not.”

Eating natto was experimental physiology. We watched each other take small bites, carefully studying the other’s strange facial expressions. Oliver transformed into a boy whose whimsical eyes, lips and forehead set me laughing, uncontrollably. Indeed, it was healthy.

Celebrating my birthday at Sushi Nakazawa, Oliver and Deborah came to near mortal blows. I shared with my friends, Chef Nakazawa (a minor star of Jiro, Dreams of Suishi) and owner Alex Borgonogne of Oliver’s love of uni. They showered us with exquisite selections from Hokkaido island, the world’s uni capital, where urchins feast on fine kombu (kelp) in pristine water. Oliver loved the mustard colored, sweet (high cholesterol) Murasaki and the rich orange Bafun with its layered flavors. Oliver loved many words dearly and would repeat them melodically. Hok-kai-do and Jit-ney were were favorites.

Oliver’s gentle, chartiable disposition led him to see the good in people, but he shed the shy sweet shell to vigorously defended his views when challenged. Our family was moving out of suburbia after 25 years, and Deborah became a purging zealot. Janna and I, slight horders, were constantly assaulted with her call to discard possessions: “Take a picture, then give it away or throw it away”. Oliver was writing On the Move, his young adulthood autobiography. He rediscovered a trove of his parents’ letters, unleashing a flood of emotional reminiscences. “Preserve the past. Save your favorite tee-shirt Janna” he implored. “Save your letters” he begged me. Turning to Deborah, “to destroy them would be criminal’, articulating ‘criminal’ with a soft explosion of articulatory precision. Momentarily shaken, Deborah quickly countered, but Janna and I were forever vindicated.

One warm spring night, sitting outside at Miyaga, I concluded our order, ‘and four pieces of uni’. Oliver roused from contemplative silence, “No. No uni. I had it last night with my friend and it made us ill.” The flummoxed waitress responded with a forced smile, “Oh, no problem. That was that last piece of uni we served.” Oliver shot back a salvo – ‘well, the piece before, or the one before that should have been the last one.’ We never ate uni again at Miyagi. Shortly after Oliver died, Miyagi closed, an upscale Japanese restaurant replaced it, the outdoor seats vanished.

In 1826, Anthelme Brillat-Savarin, the father of gastronomy, linked sugar and white flour to obesity. “Carnivorous animals never grow fat…all animals that live on farinaceous food grow fat willy-nilly; and man is no exception to the universal law.” Oliver never ordered pasta, polenta, porridge, or potatoes. Brillat-Savarin famously said, “Tell me what you eat, and I will tell you what you are.” Oliver would have answered, “fish” and Brillat-Savarin’s reply, “swimmer”.

In 1966, Oliver was a neurology resident at UCLA when Kawafuku Restaurant at 204½ E. First Street in Little Tokyo section of Los Angeles, introduced nigiri sushi to America. When my mind wanders, I hear the roar of Oliver’s BMW motorbike, he pulls up in front of Kawafuku, dismounts, book in hand, disappears into a new world of fish, to eat what he would become.