Robert May

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.

Golden brown the oysters were plated, the shrimp done in its cream and broth, and two hungry people sat down to eat.

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.


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About Sandie

Since I was a small child I have loved early fireplaces and the smell of smoke in an old house. However it was not until about Fifteen years ago that my journey into hearth cooking began. It all started at the Hurd House Museum in Woodbury Ct. I was the director of the Junior Docent program and among the programs each week we cooked. At about the same time a group of us started the Culinary Historians of Connecticut meeting once a month to discuss equipment used, receipt (18th century term for recipe), and anything between the late 1600 to late 1700 that had to do with hearth cooking. We were fortunate to try our hand at cooking at several Museums throughout Ct and many more private homes. We made cheese; we held a late 1600 dinner and shared our knowledge with others. Our group designrd our own tours such as the Kitchens of Old Wethersfield. In 2000 we were delighted to host the Historic Foodways group of ALFAM at the Hurd House during their conference at Mystic Seaport. We put together a great workshop of Puddings, Sausages, Brown Bread, Beverages you name it we offered it. I am now a member of the ALFAM foodways group. Then it was off to Colonial Williamsburg for the seminar The Art of 18th-Century Cooking: Farm to Hearth to Table. During the years I joined many workshops in Sturbridge Village plus their Dinner in a Country Village and breakfast at the Freeman Farm. So I was pretty much hooked on heart cooking and the 18th century way of life. I joined a wonderful group of ladies and we started the “Hive” a place to improve and grow your 18th century impression and offer research about material culture in 17070’s New England. We also travel with friends and have displays of clothing and teas at Museums in Massachusetts. Many events are held at the Hartwell Tavern at Minute Man National Park. They have been gracious enough to let us play there and entertain and share our knowledge with their visitors. Please visit our “Hive” site if the 1700 interest you. Then the move to New Hampshire and a job at Strawberry Banke in Portsmouth as the co-coordinator of the Junior Role Playing workshop and eventually cooking in front of the hearth at the Wheelwright house. Not only did I enjoy making my evening meals at the hearth to take home but also talking with the visitors. I am an entertainer after all, check out my program page. Most recently I am working at the Museum of Old York in Maine as an educator, hearth cook and organizer of the Junior Docent cooking program in the summer. See some photos in the archive file Because I do make food with the docents and serve food to the public at our Tavern Dinners I took the National Restaurant Association tests called ServSafe and now have my Certification as a Restaurant Manager. I look forward to the Museum of Old York opening again this March 2012 and getting back to the hearth and teaching, however for now I’m cooking at home and enjoying doing so.


  1. I LOVE your honesty in assessing from a modern taste-bud point of view. The directions are so clear. I wish we lived where we could get the fresh oysters. I once heard at CW that the oysters were totally wiped out in the 18th century, and the beds were re-seeded with new varieties from the West Coast… thus smaller today. Is there any truth to that?

  2. That is an interesting idea. I’m sure the answere is in “the Big Oytster ” book/ If I get sa chance I’ll look it up.

  3. Sandy –
    I have a question for you that does not involve oysters. I am planning to cook a top round roast for an upcoming dinner in historic Jefferds’ Tavern in York, Maine. It is a 21 pound roast, trussed, which I was planning to slow roast ahead of time in an oven, and then “finish” on the hearth, so it is all sizzling and brown and filling the Tavern with delicious smells. How would you suggest I do this? Should I try to hang it vertically from a nail in the masonry? Should I skewer it lengthwise and support it horizonally from 2 hooks on the crane? Obviously I will need a drip pan under it. I also thought that I might want to build the fire off to one side a little, so that I can control the heat/coals under the roast a bit. I obviously to not want t charred roast! Any other ideas? I am, frankly, daunted by the size of this hunk of meat and would appreciate tapping into your expertise!

  4. Eileen cut it in half, do one roast in the oven and the other in the reflector oven in the tavern. That is what I did the last time we cooked beef in the tavern.

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