Its oyster season on the Eastern Shore.
Beholding your first oyster, it’s hard to imagine who might have been courageous enough to pioneer their consumption. The packaging ain’t all that appealing. In its unexposed state, this vulnerable bivalve is protected by a shell masquerading as an impenetrable rock. What inside could possibly be worth the effort of denuding?
Not anything that looks like that, certainly.
The oyster itself is a soft alien being. A throwback to prehistory. A creature that inspires squeals of disgust and unfriendly comparisons from the uninitiated. But to those of us in the know, the oyster is one of the planet’s great culinary delights.
The beauty of the oyster is truly in the eye of the beholder.
Historically, human beings have been gobbling up this magnificent mollusk even long before the ancient Romans began shipping oysters overland from the British Isles in carts filled with ice, and selling them for their weight in gold. Nomadic American Indians ate oysters by the ton, leaving behind mounds of discarded shells. Early colonists were sometimes sustained by oysters and other seafood over those first harsh New World winters. As the United States expanded, oysters were often shipped west by stagecoach.
Oysters are good for you. They’re low in fat and contain high levels of zinc, protein, iodine, and iron. Vitamins A,B,C, and D are also present.
Food this healthy gets the blood flowing, so…
The oyster’s reputation as an aphrodisiac ranks right up there with champagne, chocolate, and expensive gifts. The passion-arousing potential of oysters has been celebrated for thousands of years. Aphrodite, the Greek goddess of love herself, rose from the sea on an oyster shell and presented her ally Eros to the ancient world. Casanova swore by oysters and is said to have eaten fifty every morning while bathing with whichever paramour was currently in favor.
Kent Island icon Melvin Clark (1922-2008) once told me, “Back in the old days you were either a waterman or a farmer. There was an abundance of oysters but no money. We’d sell to the shucking houses and sometimes you’d sell two bushels for a quarter just to get rid of them.
“Contractors across the bridge liked to hire Eastern Shoremen because they knew they would work hard. Only problem was they knew they’d lose them in September come oyster season. Oystering got into your blood. You were independent. You could go out when you wanted and come in when you wanted. Nobody could tell you to do anything.”
Dominion’s Weldon (Guinea) Legg, with a depth of traditional Chesapeake Bay folk knowledge, once told me, “If I had to do it all over again I’d rather oyster with hand tongs than anything.
“Most fellows who make tongs today make them like real tongs but don’t build them to suit, what a pair of tongs is really supposed to be. Some of them are beautiful. Carry them out there and they couldn’t scratch my butt. It’s not about how they look. You have to know what to look for. Have to make sure the bottom of your tongs is made from the butt of the tree. You don’t want them upside down. Have to know your grains. Some of that wood is like a sponge as soon as they hit the water. You could work the tops and the bottoms wouldn’t really move.
“Electronics changed the business. With depth finders, GPS, watermen don’t have to learn everything. I tell my grandchildren, you can’t be an oysterman until you learn the water out there like the palm of your hand. You’ve got to know where you are in daylight; you’ve got to know in the dark. You’ve got to know.”
Seafood entrepreneurial trailblazer Billy Harris (1922-2006) once told me, “When I was a boy, oysters were 25 cents a bushel. Three men in a boat could catch 75 to 100 bushels a day. November 1 was the start of dredging season. There’d be 100 dredge boats off Love Point catching 300 to 500 bushels a day. Back in my grandfather’s time, in the 1800s, they said if you caught four bushels that was a good day’s work. There were 15 oyster houses at Kent Narrows. When I started, a gallon of oysters was $2.50. My father had sold that gallon for 59 cents.”
Gordon Crouch, another native Islander with a deep roots and insight into the Eastern Shore’s past once told me, “The packing house (at Little Creek) was in our family from 1929 until I retired and sold it around 1990. Back (in the old days) then a lot of oystermen didn’t do anything all summer. They’d hang their tongs up and be done until fall. In the old days I heard of men who quit oystering with $25 and lived on it all summer. Of course, back then everybody had hogs, chicken and eggs, a garden. About all you’d need would be a barrel of flour.
“At one time the oyster business used to be big on Kent Island. Right here in Little Creek there were six packing houses. There were two or three more up the creek. Started dropping off in the 1970’s, after Hurricane Agnes or one of those big storms. We were the last ones to close. It was the end of an era.”
That’s what those Kent Islanders once told me.
Cass Droter’s Oyster Pie from the recipe book I KNOW A PLACE by Barbara Ann Smoot and given to me as a gift for my 40th birthday by Kim and JT Mitchell:
From my book A History of the Kent Island Volunteer Fire Department:
FIREHOUSE OYSTER FRITTERS
KIVFD Ladies Auxiliary icon Jackie Moore’s handwritten recipe provides ingredient measures for two different size batches. It does not, however, provide directions. Recipe provided by daughter in law, Joyce Moore. Directions provided by easternshorebrent.com:
For 1 gallon oysters:
8 cups flour
12 tsp baking powder
5 cups milk
For 1 quart oysters:
2 cups flour
3 tsp baking powder
1 ¼ cup milk
Mix dry ingredients. Mix wet ingredients. Dredge oysters through wet ingredients. Dredge oysters through dry ingredients. Fry.
Recipes from an article I wrote for Chile Pepper magazine in 1998: