Jonathan Swift once quipped, “It was a brave man who first ate an oyster.”
And an even braver one who pried open the shell without special gloves and knives. Actually, it’s more likely that our hero (or heroine) used a rock to smash into the mollusk.
Oysters kept people alive in the early days of colonial North America, when food – or the lack of it – almost destroyed the English settlement at Jamestown, Virginia from 1607 onward. Vast quantities of oyster shells turned up in a well there, indicating a profound reliance on this seasonal food, even during one of the worst droughts in the area’s history. The prevalence of oysters was such that an early settler, William Strachey, indicated that “Oysters there be in whole banks and beds, and those of the best. I have seen some thirteen inches long.”
So abundant were these creatures that one meaning of the Algonquian word for the bay, “Chesapeake,” meant “Great Shellfish Bay.”
Later inhabitants of Jamestown could preserve oysters when they were not so pressed by hunger. In fact, pickled oysters and ship’s biscuits were two foods loaded onto English ships intent on long voyages. Since Roman days, and earlier, people valued oysters very highly.
WM, the author of two seventeenth-century English cookbooks, included a recipe for pickled oysters in The Compleat Cook (1658):
To Pickle Oysters.
Take Oysters and wash them cleane in their own Liquor, and let them settle, then strain it, and put your Oysters to it with a little Mace and whole pepper, as much Salt as you please, and a little Wine-Vinegar, then set them over the fire, and let them boyle leisurely till they are pretty tender; be sure to skim them still as the skim riseth; when they are enough, take them out till the Pickle be cold, then put them into any pot that will lye close, they will keep best in Caper barrels, they will keep very well six weeks.
The Compleat Cook includes thirty mentions of the word “oyster,” suggesting the ongoing importance of this shellfish in the English kitchen at the time. And since there were no truly American cookbooks until Amelia Simmons’s American Cookery (1796), colonial housewives and cooks depended upon imported cookery books such as The Compleat Cook.
Note: It’s soon to be a big, big day for Gherkins & Tomatoes – on July 28 G&T will celebrate eight (8) years (!) of writing about food and food history. Why, that’s 1,181 posts. Yes, there could – and should – have been more lots more, but we must take into account the time spent writing the mushroom book and other stuff.
To celebrate, I’ve decided to post a recipe a day until July 28, and not just any recipes. No, no quick tricks for the kitchen, no instant no-bake cheesecakes, sorry. Each day I will feature a small insight into American food history.
See the other days:
© 2016 C. Bertelsen