Oysters: Utterly Unctuous but is it worth dying for?














Quite often when making dinner plans I will peruse menus to see their offerings. If a place has oysters that is an automatic yes! Oysters have been a part of American cuisine since there have been people on this continent. Once oysters coming out of Chesapeake Bay were as big as dinner plates having been more or less undisturbed for thousands of years. Tribes of Native Peoples had a varied diet and understood stewardship. They were, however,  no match for smallpox. In the early 1600s the colonizers began landing in some numbers (likely my judgy pearl clutching family.) Oysters were harvested by the millions and shipped back to England. Suddenly you had men robbing other men’s oyster beds, new harvesting laws, piracy, and murder. Roll up on my oyster bed and they gonna find your dead body in an estuary, son.


Oysters were among the foods shipped west for fancy folk

as the railroads were built across the plains. Shipped in boxcars full of ice with straw acting as insulation folx in landlocked states could for the first time eat an oyster during the spring or fall. Winter is cold enough, for the most part, to keep the shellfish fresh for the journey. Summer is spawning time so its best to leave them be.


If I want a quick light but utterly unctuous dinner I make oyster stew. It’s surprisingly easy but its a one and done. You must eat it all in one sitting as its delicate texture doesn’t like to be reheated.


I looked through granny’s cookbooks from the 1920s, church cookbooks from the 1970s, Escoffier’s “Guide Culinaire”, and the “Official White House Cookbook” 1887 edition all having a similar recipe. The Escoffier recipe is: make a fumet make that a veloute then add the oysters. The White House and church cookbooks were both stunning in their simplicity that relies on quality ingredients. Heat the oyster liquor with a quart of cream, and a little spring water, a knob of butter, salt and pepper, once it’s very hot add a quart of shucked oysters and serve with crackers. 


In modern kitchens, we take the Escoffier version and condense it.

Melt two tablespoons of butter in a four quart soup pot

Add one tablespoon each minced shallot and celery, sweat down until translucent on low flame, season them with salt and pepper

Once they’ve cooked deglaze with a cup of dry white wine

Add 1 quart of heavy cream and the liquid that comes with the oysters on a medium-high flame, the broth will be thin. If you want a thicker broth, crumble up some oyster crackers, stir into the broth at this stage

While broth is coming up to temp pick through your oysters looking for any stray shell pieces, place the oysters in a clean bowl

At this point the broth should be hot but do not boil or it will break and taste grainy

Now simply add cleaned 1-2 quarts of oysters, cook for two minutes, adjust seasoning to taste, eat up! 


Anyway if you find a new place selling oysters get at your girl.

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1971-present day Chicago