Are Oysters To Be Admired Forever?
It’s amusing to read historical recipes and observe how perception of foods changes over time. At first, all those stories about delicacies we highly value today being served as dog or prison food in old times seem shocking and funny. On the second thought, it’s logical. It’s in human nature to praise what is not easily available and disregard what is more abundant.
Oysters are different. “There were always oysters and there were those to praise them.” — says The American Magazine and Historical Chronicle, Volumes 3-4, page 37, and proves it (follow the link in Recipe Notes section).
Historical Oyster Recipes
There is no pleasanter frolic for an Autumn evening, in the regions where oysters are plentiful, than an impromptu “roast” in the kitchen. There the oysters are hastily thrown in to the fire by the peck. You may consider that your fastidious taste is marvelously respected if they are washed first. A bushel bucket is et to achieve the empty shells, and the click of the oyster knives forms a constant accompaniment to the music of laughing voices. Nor are roast oysters amiss upon your own quiet supper table, when a “good man” comes in a wet night, tired and hungry, and wants “something heartening.” Wash and wipe the shell oysters, and lay them in the oven, if it is quick; upon the top of the stove, if it is not. When they open, they are done. Pile in a large dish and send to table. Remove and upper shell by a dexterous wrench of a knife, season the oyster on the lower, with pepper sauce and butter, or pepper, salt, and vinegar in lieu of the sauce, and you have the very aroma of this earl of bivalves, pure and undefiled.
— Marion Harland, Common Sense in the Household (New York, 1871)
This is called the “famous peacemaker” in New Orleans. Every husband, who is detained down town, laughingly carries home an oyster load, or Mediatrice, to make “peace” with his anxiously waiting wife. Right justly is the Oyster Loaf called the “Peacemaker”, for, well made, it is enough to bring the smiles to the face of the most disheartened wife.
Take delicate French loaves of bread and cut off, lengthwise, the upper portion. Dig the crumbs out of the center of each piece, leaving the sides and bottom like square box. Brush each corner of the box and the bottom with melted butter, and place in a quick oven (425F) to brown. Fill with broiled or creamed oysters. Cover with each other and serve.
— The Picayne’s Creole Cook Book (New Orleans, 1901)
Cooking and Tasting Notes
When They Open, They Are Done
Even though I can easily shuck oysters with my fancy oyster knife, this is not my favorite part of eating oysters at home. The promise “when they open, they are done” caught my attention. That should be easy! Experiments with roasting (450F) and broiling showed it doesn’t work for large oysters. Smaller Pacific oysters were fine but half of the Gulf oysters didn’t open because they were larger with thicker shells.
Don’t Let Them Roll
Make sure you transport your fresh oysters home on ice to keep them sleepy and in an open bag, so they can breathe. Scrub and clean them well before roasting. To prevent oysters from rolling around the baking sheet and spilling the juice, place them on wrinkled foil or roasting rack.
Watch Them Closely to Prevent Overcooking
When placed 5-6″ under the heating elements of broil, it takes about 5 minutes for oysters to open. Timing depends on the oysters size, heat level, and how close they are to the heat source. They do not open wide. Watch them closely!
Prepare two bowls to collect the meat and the juice when oysters open. To prevent overcooking, you can place roasted oysters on ice while they are still in a hot shell.
Pricey, But Fun! But Pricey…
To generously fill one full-size French baguette with creamy oysters you need at least 2 pounds of shucked mollusks. There are approximately 6-8 large, 8-12 medium, and 12-18 small oysters in one pound. In Central Texas, one fresh Gulf oyster is $0.69-0.79. Most of the non-local oysters are $1.39-1.79 per oyster. The price for a pound of shucked oysters, local and not, is $16.99-18.99. Do the math.
I tried roasted and creamed oysters. Creamed oysters are definitely my favorite and I found using shucked oysters the best solution for making my La Mediatrice at home.
Bread and Wine
Dry French rosé and California brut work perfectly. Any whites traditionally served with seafood are my second choice.
After trying different kinds of baguettes — rustic, sourdough, wholegrain — I returned to the classic French baguette with its tender crust and delicate crumb. Everything else is too much for oysters. In my kitchen, placing brushed with melted butter baguette halves under the broil for 3-5 minutes works better than toasting them in the hot oven.