TO FRY OYSTERS
In Martha Washington’s, Book on Cookery, Karen Hess writes that, “American oysters are different in flavor from those of European waters, being fatter and blander.” I have never tasted European oysters, so have no reference for them. I do eat a lot of oysters, however, and from many regions up and down the Eastern coast, and I do have my preferences. The oysters from the Damariscotta River in Maine are my favorites. However, I’ll eat whatever the local fish market or restaurant has.
In Portsmouth at Jumping Jays restaurant they have “Shuck a Buck Tuesdays” oysters for a dollar apiece. Each week they have three choices. The new oyster on the block is the Little Bay from the waters up the river from Portsmouth; I did try them and found them mild in salinity, however, extremely small. Personally, I think they should close the oyster beds and let them grow. This brings me to a great book on oysters by Mark Kurlanskt called “the Big Oyster. “’ In his bestseller, Mark explains about the Indians of the New York region and of the oyster piles that were like small mountains. Also, if you go to Damariscotta River, they discovered a pile of oyster shells more than thirty feet deep.
One of the reasons the piles were so big is that back then oysters grew to be around 8 to 10 inches in size. That is one big gulp of an oyster. British novelist William Makepeace Thackeray complained that eating an American oyster was “like eating a baby,” evidently not his thing. Yet, this was not to last, as the oysters began to be over- harvested and therefore smaller, and many areas were putting limits on what could be harvested, and started passing conservation measures. In 1715 the colonial government banned oystering in the months without an R, when the oysters were laying their eggs. Today in New Hampshire you can harvest oysters any month with the exception of July and August.
So while reading some of the receipts in the early cookery books, I now understand that when they say to clap a piece of bacon on one side of a piece of meat and an oyster on the other, it’s just one oyster. Or when Robert May’s receipts calls for you to dry the oysters and lard them with eight or ten lardon’s though each oyster and then put it on the spit, he is not talking about the little oysters we have today (see receipt file).
So off to the fish seller I went. I picked up some oysters and shrimp to make Robert Mays “To Fry Oysters.” The market only had Martha Vineyard’s oysters, however, they were nice and fresh looking and big.
This was a great receipt to pick as my husband did most of the work. He loves to cook and so I really just sat there and instructed him as to the next step in the receipt. He did read it over beforehand.
First order of the day was to clean the shrimp and boil the shells for the sauce. Roberts May’s receipt calls for just butter and cream yet there are many other receipts that call for the addition of fish broth. Then the oysters were scrubbed clean.
Here is where my husband really shines, opening oysters. We had three dozen of them. That’s a lot of work. Now you can tell that these were of a good size and filled with oyster liquor, however, they were not 10 inches long. Into the bowl they went.
When they were all shucked, they were strained out and dried off. The liquor was saved to put with the shrimp broth, and the oysters were ready to cover with the flour. I went off to check on the shrimp shells; these I handed off to my husband to concoct a sauce. I thought I’d do something light, a salad came to mind.
Samuel Pepys and John Evelyn were contemporaries and friends. However, with the exception of new peas and sparrow grass found in the market of London, we have little knowledge if Pepys ever ate many salads or other vegetables. So I took a look in The English Huse-Wife, by Gervase Markham, 1683. There is a whole section on herbs and a lady’s skills in her garden, from her choice of seeds, gathering them, and “Of Cookery and the part thereof. “‘
He starts with” Of Sallets simple and plain,” as follows.
“First then to speak of sallets, there be some simple, and some compounded, some only to furnish out the table, and some both for use and adornation: your simple sallets are chibols peeled, washed clean, and half of the green tops cut clean away, so served on a fruit dish; or chives, scallions, radish roots, boiled carrots, skirrets, and turnips, with such like served up simply; also, all young lettuce, purslane, and divers other herbs which may be served simply without anything but a little vinegar, sallet oil, and sugar; onions boiled, and stripped from their rind and served up with vinegar, oil and peppar is a good simple sallet, so is samphire, beancods, asparagus, and cucumbers, served in likewise with oil, vinegar, and peppar, with a world of others, too tedious to nominate”
I started our salad. It may not be spring but I do love a good Sallet. Doubt I can find some skirrets or purslane, however, spinach, a good fried red beet and a dakon radish, which dates back to Europe 1548, and was a common garden variety in England, will do fine. I had boiled the beets earlier and fried them in olive oil.
The flouring of the oysters was almost done and we sat and ate our warm beet salad. Like Pepys, my husband would have liked to skip this part altogether, however, for good health he grins and bears eating vegetables and fruit.
After our salad, the shrimp broth and oyster liquor was mixed with the butter and cream and warmed on the fire. The shrimp were put into the broth to cook, and the skillet was hot and ready for the oysters.
The best part of this meal was the broth; the shrimp were a tad overcooked, and the oysters a bit insipid for our more gourmet palates. Give me salt, pepper, panko and corn meal and I’d have been happier. I’m not saying they were awful, just not what I’m use to in a fried oyster. However, what did I expect of a 1685 receipt, likely very tasty in that day? There was no Food Channel or Food TV, or Iron Chef. May did what he knew best for the times and I never expected to have all the early receipts be my cup of tea. I’ll keep trying them anyhow. After all this is the journey I have chosen.