Oysters of Elegance

oysters of el web

 
I was thrilled to find oysters a couple of days ago in the meat case at A.L. Avery & Son, my local general store.
 
Avery’s only stocks oysters between late November and early January, and I make a point of buying these expensive treats at least once during the holiday season.
 
My mother, our neighbor Alice Parker, and I threw them together into a simple New Year’s Eve supper at our home before going off to enjoy music and the company of good friends elsewhere.
 
I am not known for my modesty so I don’t hesitate to mention that Alice and I brought the house down with our rendition of “Santa Baby” and other songs at the Charlemont Inn that evening!
 
But back to oysters: I’m always amazed to recall that oysters remained plentiful and cheap as late as the early 20th century.
 
When my grandmother was a freshman at Mount Holyoke College, she used to walk into the center of town and bring back inexpensive oysters for secret feasts in her dorm. (Eating in one’s room was emphatically NOT allowed at the college in 1908!)
 
In her old age she chuckled as she recalled encountering a faculty member on the main street of town as she returned from an oyster-fetching errand.
 
The professor engaged her in conversation for several minutes. Both the faculty member and young Clara studiously ignored the oyster liquor dripping from the paper bag my grandmother was clutching.
 
Oyster suppers were common occurrences in former days in my hometown of Hawley, Massachusetts, where voters often enjoyed them after Annual Town Meeting in the 19th and early 20th centuries.
 
In a scrapbook from the Civil War era preserved by my late neighbor Ethel White’s family, a newspaper clipping describes an oyster-filled surprise party held for J.G. Longley, one of the town’s “old bachelor citizens.” According to the clipping Mr. Longley returned home from shopping to find
 
to his surprise and consternation that forty or fifty of his neighbors, whom he had never suspected of any ill before had taken possession of his house and were practically converting the old mansion into a saloon for cooking oysters, melting sugar, &c. At first he was somewhat disconcerted, being hardly able to decide whether he was himself or somebody else. He very soon recovered his sense, however, and satisfying himself that their motives were not of an incendiary nature, went in and rendered very efficient aid in disposing of the oysters and other delicacies with which the tables were spread, and joined quite freely in the “laugh and song that floated along” as the wheel of time went round.
 
By the mid-20th century overfishing rendered an oyster feast for 40 to 50 people unaffordable for most Americans. It also did damage to the environment as both oysters and their reefs fulfill important ecological functions.
 
I support the efforts of state and national groups to create new habitats for oysters—and I treasure the few oysters I eat each year!
 
I prepared this year’s ration with a simple recipe supplied by Alice. It came from her mother Mary Parker, known to neighborhood children as Gam. Gam called the dish “Oysters of Elegance.”
 
The recipe definitely dates from the early-to-mid-20th century, using as it does a now underappreciated condiment, chili sauce.
 
The combination of ingredients sounded a bit odd, but it the flavors melded wonderfully, producing a stew-like concoction that was divine sopped up with the homemade bread Alice brought to the supper.
 
I prepared it in a 1-1/2-quart casserole dish, but I think another time I’ll try using individual serving crocks. Alice remembers that Gam served the dish this way.
 
I may also try cutting back on the chili sauce (maybe reducing the quantity to 1 cup) and adding a little more oyster liquor, which I love. Alice says that the measurements she has on paper weren’t exact because her mother didn’t actually measure!
 
It was pretty darn tasty as transcribed below, however.
Here's what the oysters looked like before we sprinkled cheese on top.

Here's what the oysters looked like before we sprinkled cheese on top.

 
Gam’s Oysters of Elegance
 
Ingredients:
 
12 ounces chili sauce
1 teaspoon Worcestershire sauce
1 small onion, finely chopped
1 pint oysters
1/4 cup oyster liquor
2 tablespoons butter
grated cheddar cheese as needed (we used about 2/3 cup)
 
Instructions:
 
Preheat the oven to 375 degrees.
 
In the bottom of a small casserole dish (or four crocks) combine the chili sauce and Worcestershire sauce. Sprinkle the chopped onion pieces on top.
 
Arrange the oysters on top of this mixture, and toss on the liquor as well.
 
Dot the top of the oysters with the butter, and sprinkle grated cheese on top so that the oysters are covered (but not blanketed!).
 
Bake the oysters for about 25 minutes, until the cheese browns a bit around the edges. (The crocks should take less time–perhaps 15 minutes or so.)
 
Eat the casserole with spoons. Make sure you have plenty of homemade bread to soak up the yummy sauce.
 
Serves 4.
 
Coming next to In Our Grandmothers’ Kitchens: NEW YEAR’S RESOLUTIONS for this blog!
 
ny2web

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5 Responses to “Oysters of Elegance”

  1. Jack Estes says:

    I do want to say how much I agree with your Charlemont Inn performance assessment. Having been in the audience at the time, I gotta say I was knocked out. Eartha Kitt was channelled, clearly.

    Jack Estes

  2. tinkyweisblat says:

    What can I say, Jack, except that I concur with your opinion? (Did I mention my lack of modesty?) Happy new year……..

  3. Libby says:

    Great Oyster Lore. I have a couple of very old cookbooks from 1904 and 1910, ad yes oyster recipes are in there. In the books though that I have from about 1930 or so, the “Mock Oyster” recipes started to appear. So the desire was still there, but the oysters were getting harder to find. Funny this coincides with prolific industrial growth, so the signs were apparent even back then.

    Belated Happy New Year to you and yours. – Libby ;-)

  4. tinkyweisblat says:

    Thanks for the dates, Libby. It’s great to have resources like you!

  5. Amanda says:

    What a fun post—I love the old newspaper clipping!

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