The Almighty Oyster

I am fixated on oysters right now. Perhaps because a cold snap is on its way. Consequently, as the seasons change, so does my appetite. Many generations ago, my family ran an oyster packing business. As I sit in my office and type this column, across the room in my peripheral view, is an old oyster packing house sign, and a pair of nippers my husband used as a young man. They are dusty mementoes of what I had assumed for most of my life would become a prop to a story that would begin with: remember when there were oysters?

Oysters are an integral part of Maryland history. Oysters have been central to the local diet since the time of the Native Americans. They fed the earliest settlers in our region and provided employment, not just through harvesting, but also at the packing houses that have long since disappeared. Railroad companies laid rail to the water to ship trainloads of this marvelous food west. They have spawned many a war and drowning and been at the epicenter of a culture we must not deny.

As tradition would have it, for hundreds of years, oysters could only be enjoyed in the cooler months (those that contain the letter “r” in them to be specific). However, these rules have changed in recent years so that oyster lovers can enjoy a Chesapeake Bay oyster anytime of the year. Being a creature of habit, I find the thought of a warm, summer oyster to be unsavory, so I stick with the convention that fall is the time of year that marks the return of the oyster to the dinner table. After all, don’t we long for and savor something more intensely if we have waited for it patiently?

To prepare for this annual superstar, I have completely immersed myself with readings about oysters and the culture that clings to them (see list below). When you eat an oyster, you’re not just merely consuming food, you are also ingesting a story that comes along with this delicacy, whether you realize it or not. Where did my oyster come from? Was it wild caught and by whom? What river did it come from? Did it come from a farm? How did it get to my plate?

In a time where Chesapeake Bay oyster restoration is front page news, these are questions I ponder. Whether the oysters placed before us are wild caught or farm raised is a new question for consumers to contemplate. Whatever the source may be, in the end the product is delicious. We, as residents of the Eastern Shore, are lucky to be eating oysters at all, considering their future has been in peril ever since I can remember… the reality being we have witnessed a devastating decline in the Chesapeake Bay oyster population for generations (14 to 20 million bushels in the late 1800s to 26,000 bushels in 2003 – oysterrecovery.org).

My fondness for the rich history and deeply embedded culture that exists here on the Eastern Shore precludes me from taking sides in the ever present aquaculture debates. Maybe it’s all the press the oyster has received lately but, for the first time in my life, I feel like everyone wants to not only save the oyster but propagate and proliferate their existence in our waters. By whatever means this is accomplished, it shows deep rooted public interest in the health and welfare of the Bay’s fishery and optimistically a revival of a once thriving industry through a multimodal approach to harvesting.

So to all you oyster lovers out there, the almighty oyster lives on for another season with a promising future. Read about oyster history, oyster stories and the way of life that has surrounded their harvest for generations. If you love a good water tale, I promise you will not be disappointed by what you learn. But, most importantly, enjoy the oyster in as many ways as you can – demand can only solidify the efforts currently being made by our watermen, nonprofits, and the State of Maryland to secure their future in a cloudy watershed that desperately craves them as much as our stomachs. Dust off your oyster plates all you natives; the almighty oyster is back.

Oysters two ways, contemporary and classic:

Gingered Oysters Ceviche

30 “Select” oysters

1T rice wine vinegar

1/4T fresh ginger

1/4t salt

Pinch of black pepper

1T olive oil

1/4t roasted garlic

1/4c fine diced red bell pepper

1T fine diced scallions

1/4 stalk fine diced celery

1 bay leaf

1/8 t red pepper flakes

Mix all ingredients together and chill in the refrigerator for at least 2 hours before serving. Serves about a dozen guests, or 1/2 dozen if they adore oysters.

Oysters with Sherry

15 “Select” oysters

1T butter

dash of salt and pepper

“generous” splash of sherry

In a skillet, on medium low heat, melt the butter. Add the oysters, sprinkle with salt and pepper and gently cook them for about 3 to 4 minutes or until the edges start to curl up. Finish with a generous splash of sherry. Serve warm, right out of the pan. Serves a handful of oyster enthusiasts.

Readings about oysters and Maryland’s native life and history you are sure to enjoy:

The Lord’s Oysters, by Gilbert Byron

Skipjack – The Story of America’s Last Sailing Oystermen, by Christopher White

Chesapeake Oysters – The Bays Foundation and Future, by Kate Livie

The Last Waterman, by Glenn Lawson

Cookbooks with Marvelous Oyster Recipes:

A Cook’s Tour of the Eastern Shore – Tidewater Publishers

Oysters – A Culinary Celebration – Joan Reardon

Maryland’s Way – The Hammond-Harwood House Cookbook

Cathy Schmidt writes from Trappe where she and her husband Chef Brian Schmidt own Garden and Garnish Catering and Rootin’ Tootin’ No Gluten Foods. They have four children, of which all four are Gluten Intolerant. The family also lives with two severe nut allergies and a fish/shellfish allergy. Cathy loves to garden and cook from scratch.

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