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Austers

October 14, 2010 - Eric Paddock
"O Oysters," said the Carpenter, "You've had a pleasant run! Shall we be trotting home again?' But answer came there none-- And this was scarcely odd, because They'd eaten every one. -- Lewis Carroll

How hungry was the guy who chanced upon an ugly stone-like thing on the beach, cracked it open to find a big glob of snot, and decided to eat it?

I have to believe that’s how oysters arrived in the realm of edible things. Those of us who relish the thought of oyster season have that poor, famished beachcomber whose name is lost forever to thank for recognizing this great culinary gift of nature.

The old saw is that oysters are best when consumed in months ending in “R.” OK. I’ll go along with that, although when you travel along the coasts of the southern states, you can find them fresh on menus virtually year-round. I eat oysters in cold months. They were always a Christmas and New Years tradition in my house.

As a kid growing up a couple miles from the western shore of the Chesapeake Bay, I imagine my first experience with this ugly bivalve was probably less than wonderful. Oysters are something you learn to appreciate as your tastes mature and your culinary wanderlust expands.

I love ‘em, even though I am now far enough removed from where they live, that Chincoteagues on the half-shell are out of my reach.

There are different kinds of oysters that live in different places around the world, even different kinds in different places in this country, so I’ll limit this discussion to the ones found sleeping in oyster beds in the Chesapeake and those transplanted into saltier waters in Virginia.

Bay oysters tend to be large and fat, with more oyster earthiness to their flavor, than the somewhat smaller Chincoteaques that are saltier because they live in saltier water. That said, I prefer Chincoteagues for eating raw, Bay oysters for cooking.

I think the best oysters I ever ate were contained in fritters dispensed by members of the Tilghman Island Volunteer Fire Department Auxiliary. Of course, on Tilghman they are called “austers.” After more than 30 years, the memory of that experience still gives me pause. It was the first-ever Tilghman Island Days celebration, and I was a very young reporter working on Maryland’s Eastern Shore. In the kitchen of the firehall were large pots of batter, not much different than pancake batter, except infused with oyster “liquor” or juice. Into the batter were dumped buckets of shucked Bay oysters.

A ladle of about three oysters and accompanying batter was transfered to one of a number of cast-iron skillets in which oil had reached dangerous temperatures. After no more than a few seconds, the fritter was turned. A few more seconds and it was retrieved to lay placidly on a bun. Fast food at its absolute best. A few people added a couple sprinkles of vinegar, others a bit of hot sauce. I added nothing, chasing them with a cold beer (I was off the clock, of course).

There are about a hundred ways to cook oysters and I won’t go into them here. Google oysters and you’ll see that my estimate is woefully conservative.

I will be the first to admit that oysters are not universally treasured. Those who don’t like them have my sympathies.

 
 

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