A Taste of the Chesapeake
By John L. Jones Jr.
The oyster is one of the few delicacies in the world that can be enjoyed entirely on its own, no accompaniment needed. It even comes in its own beautiful serving dish, the shell itself, sometimes with a pearl.
Those of us living around the Bay know, beyond a doubt, that the best oysters in the world just happen to come from our own backyard, the Chesapeake Bay. And there’s a good chance that we just might be right. After all, seafood purveyors from around the world seek out the Chesapeake oyster, especially the Tangier and Chincoteague varieties.
For Bay folk, the oyster represents far more than just good eating. For us, the fall season begins when the watermen put away their crab pots and gear up for the oyster harvest. And we know how fortunate we are when we see these shellfish being unloaded from the workboats, heaped in bushel baskets with sea grasses clinging to the sides. Already, we can taste the oyster brine, the very taste of the Bay itself, rich and salty.
Grand cultural traditions have grown up around the much-revered oyster. As fundraisers, many communities and fire departments hold annual oyster roasts each fall. Because these events have been “discovered,” they’re not quite as raucous as they were at one time, when, for a nominal fixed price, you could eat oysters to your heart’s content, served up fried, roasted, and raw. The fixed price also included all the draft beer you cared to drink. And each fire department had its own recipe for oyster stew. Some of these recipes were culinary masterpieces, though many were not preserved in writing, a great loss for lovers of Bay food.
But the centerpiece of any oyster roast was the oyster itself, raw on the half shell. You lined up at makeshift bars where a half dozen of these shellfish at a time were served up on paper plates. At each bar were bottles of Tabasco and Worcestershire sauces. There might be some oyster crackers around and, on rare occasions, a few lemon wedges. But the real oyster eaters simply slid them right off the shell and down the throat, no stops in between. It was even something of a rite of passage to get up the nerve to eat your first raw oyster. These events went on all afternoon and into the evening—the beer flowing freely, oysters consumed in huge quantities, a great celebration of the Chesapeake’s bounty.
The oyster house itself is a hallowed institution of the Bay, though, sadly, it is rapidly disappearing. These eateries can still be found if you look hard enough, but Chesapeake old-timers remember when they abounded. The oyster house is just what the name implies, a restaurant that specializes in oysters, often serving this shellfish only. At one time, for very little money, you could eat all the oysters you wanted, usually just served raw on the half shell. You could also guzzle an ocean of beer and still be socially acceptable. And in their glory days, the oyster houses were so basic that even fried potatoes were eschewed as affectations. Nothing stood in the way of oyster eating. The shells were simply thrown on the floor to be broomed out later.
The Church Dinner
Perhaps the Bay’s most time-honored culinary tradition of all is the ham-and-oyster dinner. Held each fall, these dinners are often hosted by church groups. They seem to say that summer is over, the oyster is in season, it’s harvest time. Attending a church dinner is a way to sample genuine Chesapeake cookery. Church members cook at these events with their home recipes, using fresh ingredients and shellfish straight from the Bay.
I have a mental list of my most memorable food experiences, and very near the top of the list is a church dinner I attended one fall at a Methodist Church in Davidsonville, Maryland. I was in elementary school at the time and spending a few days at my great grandmother’s beach cottage, just south of Annapolis. My great grandmother, Ma, loved genuine home cooking, and she preferred church dinners to restaurants. At that time, these dinners were listed each day in the local paper.
In the gathering darkness, we left the shores of the Bay in Ma’s old Chevy convertible and traveled to Davidsonville, making our way out into farming country on unlit two-lane roads, almost no traffic, passing deep woods and flat fields. Occasionally, we’d see a farmhouse with smoke rising from its chimney.
Ma parked under the trees that lined the dirt-and-gravel driveway of the church. In the church’s brightly lit basement, tables and wooden folding chairs were lined up, real cloth on the tables, and the plates and silverware seemed to have been brought in from someone’s home. I was about to experience a cooking like no other, the cooking of the Chesapeake farms, where land and sea meet.
As soon as we sat down at one of the tables, I felt welcome. The other diners greeted me as if I were an old friend. The food was being passed around family-style. And what fine food it was. The platters were piled high with cured ham and fresh turkey, home-baked dinner rolls, vegetables that tasted as if they’d just been picked—string beans, tomatoes, corn on the cob. And there were bowls heaped with mashed potatoes, turkey dressing, along with pan gravy in gravy boats.
There was no skimping here. These church folk were truly filled with the spirit of generosity. In fact, they seemed to revel in it. Each time a platter looked as if it might become anything less than filled, a farmer’s wife would come from the kitchen to replenish it. These good women, dressed in long, no-nonsense dresses and aprons, kept telling everyone to eat plenty. And all of us were glad to do just that.
This was a traditional fall dinner, and the oyster played a key role. Platters of oysters were being passed around, some oven-roasted, some in casserole form, some fried. Although I’d spent much time around the Chesapeake region, somehow I’d never gotten around to eating an oyster. But then a platter of deep-fried oysters came my way. They were breaded and golden, and I just had to try at least one.
That one oyster turned into many. It had just the right bite, and the batter was delicious. And the very taste of the oyster reminded me of the Bay itself, the taste of salt water in my mouth, the very essence of the mighty Chesapeake. I loved it. And I thought it made the perfect accompaniment to poultry. I later learned that this view is shared by many lovers of Bay food and that serving poultry and seafood together is a Chesapeake tradition.
I certainly had my share of both seafood and poultry that night. But I’d also experienced something far more important, something I’d remember for a lifetime. I’d had the good fortune to be on hand for harvest time on the Chesapeake.
Unfortunately, the Bay’s oyster population has dwindled in recent years, but state governments are doing their part to reverse this trend by seeding the oysters and cleaning the waters of the Chesapeake. If all of us do what we can to “Save The Bay,” it will be possible to have a bountiful supply of one of the world’s most delicious shellfish for a long time to come. pl
For this recipe, you can just buy a pint of already-shucked oysters—Chesapeake oysters, of course!
Drain oysters, remove grit, and dry on paper towels.
Mix one cup of flour with one cup of breadcrumbs. In a shallow bowl, beat two eggs with two tablespoons of light cream. Toss the oysters in the flour mixture, then in the egg mixture, then in the flour mix again, coating the oysters thoroughly. When done, sprinkle with salt and pepper to taste.
In a heavy iron skillet, heat one stick of butter with one cup of vegetable oil until sizzling and then reduce heat.
Fry oysters a few at time. Do not crowd the pan. Each batch will take two or three minutes. When oysters are a golden brown, remove from pan and drain on paper towels.
This dish goes well with tartar sauce and lemon wedges, and some oyster house veterans swear by ketchup mixed with horseradish as a “cocktail” sauce.
Eat hearty. Enjoy the taste of the Bay!