"Embrace the slime!" That was how my "oyster mentor" taught me to appreciate those fine bivalves. "Swish it around, taste the brine." Prior to our dinner at the Oceanaire Seafood Room, I tended to gulp down oysters doused in shrimp cocktail sauce, which was not the ideal way to eat something that nowadays costs $2 or $3 a piece. I loved the idea of it. But actually eating an oyster was something I thought might lead to revulsion. So I had this dinner, which took place probably eleven or twelve years ago. And I couldn't have picked a better mentor.
At the time, Alvaro S. Ribeiro, S.J., was an English professor at Georgetown University, my alma mater. He had a real zest for the good things in life, although he had sworn off alcohol, except for the occasional glass of wine (he claims to have made killer martinis). But he loved good food and especially oysters. We ordered a dozen, probably a sampling of Wellfleets, Blue Points, Raspberry Points, and Kumamotos. We squeezed some lemon around, made sure to detach the oyster from its shell by moving it about—careful not to spill any of its liquid—and added just a dab or two of cocktail sauce or mignonette, perhaps a sprinkle of fresh horseradish or a single drop of Tabasco, and then slurp. I embraced the slime and have since been an ardent fan.
Of course Father Ribeiro was more than just my oyster mentor. He was a spiritual mentor, offering guidance and wisdom, and never one to be preachy. He'd just say something like, "I think it's probably a good idea you go to confession at least once a year." We didn't talk much about politics. But we did talk about most everything else, including anti-Catholic discrimination, the problems of the Chinese (Ribeiro was of Chinese-Portuguese-and-whatever-else descent and grew up in Hong Kong), and of course the inanities of academia—the politics of the English Department and the palace intrigue within the administration, not to mention "Jes Res" (Jesuit residence) gossip. He loved Pulp Fiction but hated Casino. Go figure.
I never had Ribeiro as a professor. He taught a writing class to the freshmen. On at least one occasion he approached the lectern and began speaking in a thick—some would say offensive—Chinese accent, just to freak out the kids. Then he would revert to his normal Oxford English voice. (From Hong Kong, Ribeiro studied at Oxford and Yale. He was a "Balliol Boy" along with Charles Krauthammer and E.J. Dionne.) He also taught Shakespeare, Elizabethan drama, and a senior-level course on the Man Booker Prize, which culminated in a trip to London for the award ceremony along with his top students. On occasion Ribeiro would bring up his area of foremost expertise: The life of Dr. Charles Burney.
Fortunately, a housemate of mine came to know Ribeiro and the next thing you know, we're over his apartment eating his pizza. Each residence community has some religious person appointed to it—ours was assigned to a nun. My apartment preferred Ribeiro and adopted him as our "Padre." He loved to joke. He referred to a course on Christian mysticism dismissively as "Father Fields's Magic Show." When he revealed that the Jesuits own a Tuscan villa, we asked about that vow of poverty. He replied, "If this is poverty, bring on chastity!" And he once gave me the finger.
I was saddened to hear that Father Ribeiro had died on April 14 at the age of 64. By the time I received the email, he had already been buried. Not long ago he left Georgetown to seek treatment for his depression, which could be severe. He also suffered from a series of ministrokes. I meant to send him a note, but I lost his information. And now it is too late. Too late to say thanks for being there for me, thanks for all the good times we had over dim sum, decadent dinners, movies, parties. Thanks for marrying me and my wife and making us memorize our vows, for blessing our house when we moved in, for baptizing my son. And thanks for teaching me to appreciate those oysters.