Consider the Oyster
In these R months, it’s time to bring out the bivalves
by M.L. Faunce
Oysters call to me in the Big Apple.
If they aren’t the only reason for visits to New York, they’re the first stop my traveling partner and I make. We head directly from Penn Station to the Oyster Bar at Grand Central Terminal. There, we find some 30 varieties of oysters on the half-shell raw bar menu. We select glistening succulent bivalves from a menu that’s like our coastal migratory flyways: Alaska, Oregon and Washington State on one coast, and Nova Scotia, mid-coast Maine, Massachusetts and Rhode Island on the other.
Along with the tiny West Coast Kumamoto, my favorite on the menu is the Long Island Sound Blue Point. Maryland’s oyster, unfortunately, is not on the Oyster Bar menu, but Chincoteagues from Virginia often are.
Our struggling Maryland wild oyster industry has strong competition from markets now well established in the year-round half-shell trade.
Most oysters shucked and served on the half-shell today are dearly priced and come from aquaculture fisheries called oyster farms or ranches. Cultured oysters, like those farmed in cold northern waters, grow fat but don’t spawn, assuring year-round availability. Maine’s salty Damariscotta River oysters called Glidden Point can be found on menus in big cities coast to coast.
At home, I wait for the R months out of tradition and look for local oysters from Chesapeake Bay and its tributaries, for their taste evokes powerful memories.
My father ate oysters all ways: raw, stewed, fried and frittered prepared with a delicate touch by my mother. Dad would tote my brother and me to the wharf in Southwest Washington when it was a wharf and market for locally caught fish and shellfish, mostly from Southern Maryland.
After buying a peck or so, we would duck into a dark, cold, cinder-block building pungent with the briny scent of shucking. Shuckers were black men sitting on upside-down bushel baskets, skillfully wielding wooden-handled knives with flat, skinny blades called Chesapeake stabbers. We watched as they nimbly pried the shells of each oyster apart, releasing the clear liquor and plump mollusk. My father’s mouth would water, and mine does now just at the thought of it.
During the R months, oysters were tradition. At my Aunt Mary and Uncle Bill’s farm in Charles County, a cool, fall Saturday night meant oysters roasting over a wood fire, family and friends standing around as if on ceremony. Oysters piled in wet burlap sacks were thrown on hot coals and after roasting were spilled out onto a table. The feast became a free-for-all, the hot shells popping open and nipping our hands as we slurped the steaming liquor and toasty oysters. Winter dreams are made of this.
Fortunately, we don’t have to reminisce of oysters past. We have several months left to indulge our senses and warm our hands. In Annapolis, two historic oyster bars sit nearly side by side at Market Square on City Dock. There, Middletown Tavern and McGarvey’s will satisfy your oyster cravings. In Deale, the Oyster BLT at Skippers Pier is divine, and the fried oysters at Petie Green’s rival my mother’s. The Choptank Oyster Company on the Eastern Shore is coddling an oyster called Choptank Sweets to rave reviews.
The Choptank Sweets and other Maryland farm-raised oysters may become precious delicacies after a report by Gov. Martin O’Malley’s new Oyster Advisory Commission. Findings are preliminary, but the Commission concludes that “business as usual will not restore the oyster,” referring to traditional harvesting of wild-caught oyster stocks.
Even a moratorium on oyster harvesting, the Commission found, will not restore native Chesapeake oysters. We must also restore natural oyster bars, fight oyster disease and correct water quality throughout the Chesapeake Bay watershed. Read the full report at www.dnr.state.md.us/fisheries/oysters.
While you ponder the state and fate of Maryland’s oyster restoration, here’s more recommended winter reading to whet your appetite and offer some salty history.
Renowned culinary historian M.F.K. Fisher’s beautiful little volume Consider the Oyster tells of the “dreadful but exciting life” of the Eastern oyster, with stories and memories and recipes that always get me craving oysters (and more stories). She tells of the fleeting childhood of the oyster as spat, “two fine free-swimming weeks forever gone.”
Also try A Geography of Oysters: The Connoisseur’s Guide to Oyster Easting in North America, my new bible on all things oyster.
Long-time contributor M.L. Faunce’s feature story on oysters, Stewin’, won a best-of-show prize in 2004.