In Chesapeake Country,
We Get Together over Oysters
by Maureen Miller
I’ve been part of a time-honored tradition: packing oysters.
I’m not speaking about packing oysters into cans or jars. I’m talking about the process of scooping them out of a wash of eggs and milk, dumping them one by one into a pan of seasoned cracker meal and then rolling each one around until all its slimy parts are covered with cracker meal. Once covered, the little critters are then patted down and placed neck-to-neck onto baking sheets, where they’ll await their turn to be dipped into the hot oil that will cook them to a succulent golden brown. That’s packing, a process in my village, Galesville, that goes back over three-quarters of a century.
But the tradition, I have learned, is more than the process. The process is the excuse, if one is needed, for citizens of the community to gather. The tradition is in the carefully guarded secret egg-wash and cracker-meal village recipe. It is also in the spirit of community service. For these hand-packed and crispy fried oysters will be the drawing card of an annual all-you-can eat oyster and ham dinner, a fundraising activity to benefit the community and the hall in which we are working.
So on this rainy Saturday morning, I join my neighbors in the process and tradition. We’re a large group: close to 30 women at the packing tables and a good dozen or more men in the kitchen. Some of the women are veteran packers, having learned the method from their mothers or grandmothers. Some are new to the village and thus new to this tradition. The rest of us have been exposed for at least two dinners and are therefore not quite veterans and not quite newbies.
As we gather, the hall is filled with greetings, hugs and handshakes as acquaintances are renewed and new acquaintances are made for ours is a dynamic village.
Pulling on latex gloves, we move to our stations. Sitting or standing at the long tables, in groups of three, each of us is as intent on the conversation around as we are on the routine of scoop/dump or roll/pat/put.
It’s spring, and much of the initial talk is about surviving another winter and the anticipation of getting our gardens and boats ready for the season. But soon the topics are changing as quickly as the baking sheets are filled with packed oysters. Ranging from family information whose children are graduating and off to college this year, what the grandchildren are up to, where are folks going on vacation to village news what’s happening to the local restaurants, the hall, the ball field to advice on best buys, exercise routines and recipes.
The familiarity and camaraderie of this community is now a chapter of my life.
Rituals such as this go on all around the Bay. You can experience them, too. Just look for the posters along the road advertising oyster and whatever dinners, and check with the locals to see if you can’t join in on the packin’.
Taste the results at the Galesville Civil Improvement Association’s ham and oyster dinner Saturday, April 1 in the newly renovated Galesville Memorial Hall: 410-867-3541. As oyster season nears its end, you’ll find dinners cooked by other churches and civic associations in 8 Days a Week.
Editor’s note: You might hear such local variations as patting and padding on the regionalism packing. State folklorist Elaine Eff says the term she’s heard on the Eastern Shore is patting.