Oyster Tales and Pearls of Wisdom

Lemons and Oysters (Used by permission.)
Lemons and Oysters (Photo credit: Eric Brown.)

“Secret, self-contained, and as solitary as an oyster.” ~~ Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol

(Due to family obligations for a few weeks, I’m posting some previous posts that I’ve dusted off and updated. )

There’s something intriguing about the oyster, you know. Maybe its looks?  Maybe its texture? Maybe both? Oysters frankly resemble the human female vulva. Given the ancient human tendency to believe that eating one’s enemy transfers the enemy’s strength to a warrior, well, it’s not a long shot to believing that oysters might confer certain powers …

After all, as Jonathan Swift said, “He was a bold man who first eat an oyster.”  But maybe not. Maybe the first man knew something profound, something whispered about behind closed doors, in bed chambers under tanned skins or silk bed linens.  How could a shell that ugly produce a fruit that tasted so good?  One thing is for sure:  men have been shucking and eating oysters for a long time.  So have women, for that matter.

Oyster shuckers, Cancale, France (Photo copyright Claude Renault. Used by permission.)
Oyster shuckers, Cancale, France (Photo copyright Claude Renault. Used by permission.)

Shell middens throughout the world attest to that. In ancient Greece, oyster shells were used as ballots in elections. The Romans first farmed oysters over 2,000 years ago, transplanting oysters from the Adriatic Sea to other parts of the Italian coast.

Oyster Hatchery, Louisiana (Used by permission.)
Oyster Hatchery, Louisiana

A Frenchman named Coste perfected modern methods of oyster farming, in response to a 1754 decree by the French government preventing commercial oystering between April 1 and October 31. Problems of decreased oyster supplies are not new!

Oyster farming continues worldwide today and the harvesting season begins in Florida on September 1. During summer months, oysters spawn and are not as succulent. Contrary to myth, oysters CAN be eaten during months without “R”, but the glycogen (a starch unique to animals) level is high. The glycogen causes the oyster flesh to look milky and taste watery. In days before refrigeration, the “R” rule acted as a practical solution to the problem of spoilage during shipping.

Oyster-gathering boats, Cancale, France
Oyster-gathering boats, Cancale, France

Today, purveyors ship oysters under very stringent conditions and thankfully the most pressing problem the cook faces lies in the act of cooking. Oysters are easily overcooked; a rule of thumb is to cook only until the edges of the oysters begin to curl slightly. Oysters on the half‑shell require no cooking, but be careful to buy oysters from a known source, as there have been some reports of hepatitis stemming from contaminated oysters. Oysters can also be scalloped, deep‑fried, broiled, stewed, baked, and pan‑fried. Serve breaded deep‑fried oysters on crusty French bread with tartar sauce and lemon juice for a wonderful lunch treat.

Heavenly oysters (Used by permission of Helen Yee.)
Heavenly oysters (Photo credit: Helen Yee.)

Take advantage of the season and hold an oyster roast. Read Marjorie Kinnan Rawling’s account of a moonlit night oyster roast on the coast of the Matanzas River (Cross Creek Cookery, pages 91‑92). Settle down on the settee with Mark Kurlansky’s ode to the New York oyster, The Big Oyster: History on the Half Shell or glance at Rowen Jacobsen’s A Geography of Oysters: The Connoisseur’s Guide to Oyster Eating in North America. Thumb through M. F. K. Fisher’s exquisitely splendid Consider the Oyster , which begins with a sentence every writer could envy: “An oyster leads a dreadful but exciting life.”

Salivate at Jeffrey Steingarten’s fantasy of eating oysters on a Washington beach, roasted over an open fire:

All the way from New York I could taste the the chubby oysters poached in their own seal-salt liquor, rich with woody smoke and the grassy sweetness of wild onions.

Laugh with Steingarten [Vogue’s food writer extraordinaire and Iron Chef judge] who ends his quest a tad bit curmudgeonly by saying this of the fishermen of the Pacific Northwest:

It is no accident that Captain Ahad set sail from Nantucket, not Santa Barbara, in his quest for Moby-Dick.

Or  fix an old‑fashioned oyster dressing for a turkey.

Oysters Rockefeller (used by permission)
Oysters Rockefeller

Looks aren’t everything, they say. The proof is in the oyster. Where else can you get a good meal and maybe a pearl, too? Maybe something less tangible, too …

Nutrition Notes

Oysters are high in iodine, which helps to prevent goiter. In addition, 1 cup of shucked, uncooked oysters yields 160 calories, 15.6 mg of iron (excellent source), and 20 grams of protein. One fried breaded oyster packs in 90 calories.

Old‑Fashioned Oyster Dressing

Makes enough for a 15‑pound turkey

8 T. butter

l cup celery, chopped

l large onion, chopped

1 1/2 cups sliced fresh mushrooms

1/3 cup minced parsley

6 cups bread, preferably a dense crumbed Italian loaf, toasted and cut into small 1/4‑inch cubes

1 cup chopped pecans

2 eggs, lightly beaten

1/2 cup (or more) milk or turkey broth

1‑2 t. sage or to taste

1/2 t. thyme or to taste

Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

2 cups shucked oysters, drained and cut in halves or quarters

1. Sauté the onion and celery in the butter in a skillet over medium high heat until limp. Turn mixture into a large bowl. Sauté the mushrooms in the same skillet. Add mushrooms, parsley, bread cubes, pecans, eggs, milk or broth, and seasonings to the bowl and stir in well.

2. Sauté the oysters for 1 minute in the remaining 4 T. of butter and add to the stuffing mixture. Mix in gently. Place mixture in an air‑tight plastic container, cover, and refrigerate overnight for flavors to blend. DO NOT STUFF TURKEY UNTIL JUST BEFORE BAKING. Use as you would any other turkey stuffing.

An article from October 27, 2008:

A French Family Dynasty Reinvents the Oyster

© 2010 C. Bertelsen

Tasmanian Oysters (used by permission of Bill Donnelly)
Tasmanian Oysters (Photo credit: Bill Donnelly)

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