Burton on the Bay:
The Only Good Oyster
It takes a fellow Vermonter to make that mollusk palatable to me

Why, then the world's mine oyster,Which I with sword will open.

-William Shakespeare


Pardon me, Tidewater Marylanders, but if the world is my oyster, one of us is short-changed. Me.

Oysters don't rank high on my list of seafood; moreover, to crack open one, a sword I would need. Many times I've tried to open these mollusks; seldom have I succeeded. And once looking at what's within while nursing a wounded finger or two, I wondered why I made the effort.

You get my drift. I'm not much for shellfish with crinkly edges. Give me a clam or quahog any day: The raw flesh is less offensive to the eye and more tasty to the tongue. Or, better still, a steamed scallop, even a mussel.

I'm not alone in such thoughts. I recall that some rockfish agreed with my assessment - oysters versus clams, that is.


Rockfish Prefer Clams

Back in the early '60s when clam chumming for rockfish was affordable and effective, I was fishing one late November morning with the late Capt. Ronnie Harrison out of Tilghman Island. We were catching rockfish after rockfish in the days of no limits and a minimum size of 12 inches.

Suddenly, we discovered the last of the clams had gone into the grinder. None were left for bait, and fish were still hungry. Along that day on the boat was the late Louis Goldstein, who would praise anything - in addition to the Lord - if it came from Chesapeake Bay.

Innovative Louis reminded us that we had oysters aboard courtesy of Ronnie's mother, Mrs. Alice Harrison, who knew Louis relished them on the half shell. For me, there was a thermos of hot and rich oyster stew yellowed with enough butter to whet my appetite.

Gallant and generous Louis offered the sacrifice of his oysters for bait. "What rockfish wouldn't want an oyster?" he asked.

What rockfish wouldn't want an oyster? Louis soon found out. All of 'em. He and the late Dr. Ted Boss had one strike between them and then didn't connect. Presumably as soon as the fish tasted the raw and ugly substitute, which it probably mistook for a piece of sick clam in the chum line, it spit it out.

So Louis and Ted had their oysters on the half shell, and I my stew (which I wouldn't have traded for any rockfish) as we switched to trolling at the mouth of the Choptank in cold weather.


No Oysters, Thank You

Don't get me wrong, I'm not totally anti-oyster. There are a few dishes involving these curious creatures I appreciate, among them oyster stew, oysters fried brown, a well-cooked oyster fritter - and occasionally oysters Rockefeller, which to my way of thinking is a sometimes acceptable substitute for deviled clams.

Now that Viagra and Bob Dole have come along, who needs oysters anyhow? A small pill might be as disagreeable as a raw oyster, but at least it's smaller, easier to swallow - and probably more effective, which reminds me of the words of Garry Shandling:

Oysters are supposed to enhance your sexual performance, but they don't work for me. Maybe I put them on too soon.

Because of the many who dredge oysters from skipjacks, hand-tong them or catch them otherwise including diving, recreationally or commercially, I welcome news that more Chesapeake oysters are available this year, and I am concerned that because of the drought they are more susceptible to disease.

I appreciate that oysters busy themselves at the bottom of the Chesapeake by filtering Bay waters, taking out the bad stuff. But doesn't this tell you something about the taste background of the bivalve that absorbs all the no-nos?

If someone offered me a bushel of freshly caught oysters with the provision I had to eat them raw, I'd respond 'You keep the oysters. I'll eat the basket - or at least fill it with clams.'

To my way of thinking - and this will bring howls of protest from oyster aficionados - removed from the year should be September, October, November, December, January, February, March and April. Change them to anything else, but, please, no Rs. Get my drift?

They're the months with Rs in them, considered by traditional seafood consumers as fitting for the human consumption of oysters. Truth is, technically, the old saw about Rs came about in the days before modern refrigeration, and now it's appropriate to eat oysters during any month, Rs or no Rs. So what's the good news?


Saved by Vt. Sage

Here we are in Maryland, the hotbed of oyster production and big boosters of same, and I note that in the 20th Annual National Oyster Cookoff in St. Mary's County earlier this month, out-of-staters outnumbered winners and those getting honorable mention by a score of 25 to 16.

I also note that prominent among prize winners were cooks from land-locked states such as Tennessee, Illinois, Pennsylvania, West Virginia and Vermont. Figuring prominently were those from Florida, where an oyster comes from the brine already half steamed.

Intriguing was the main-dish blue-ribbon winner prepared by Dean Thomas of Essex, Vt., which is about as far inland as you can get in the state of my origin - and where the only native 'mollusks' are, as in West Virginia, 'mountain oysters.'

Dean was smart enough to disguise the original flavor of oysters with two of my favorites, hazelnuts and sage, in a dish he called Hazelnut-Sage Crusted Oysters:

Shuck oysters, leave in half shell. Sweat the leek in the butter, add heavy cream and reduce by half until thick. Cool, then place leek mix under each oyster. In small mixing bowl, blend hazelnuts, bread crumbs, garlic and sage. Pour in melted butter to bind. Mix well, adjust seasoning with salt and pepper. With each oyster, press a topping crust of hazelnut mix, broil until crisp. Serve on bed of rock salt with fresh squeezed lemon.

Bon appetite, though methinks it would be better with quahogs.

| Issue 43 |

Volume VII Number 43
October 28-November 3, 1999
New Bay Times

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