Before building a stone-wall in our backyard, part of the hillside had to be dug away. One morning, I noticed something white sticking out of the exposed strata, a foot or so below the surface. Once it was rinsed off, a gleam of nacre revealed it to be an old weathered oyster shell. Someone in the last century or so, one of the former owners of our property, liked these tasty bivalves as much as we do.
I shouldn’t have been surprised, as oysters have been popular in the Hudson Valley for a very long time. Some twenty years ago, I spoke with one of the archaeologists who were doing exploratory digs at Kingston’s Senate House. He told me that thousands of barrels of oysters were shipped up the river from New York harbor, as early as the early Dutch period, and that some of those oysters were as large as a foot in length. New York City was once the capital of oyster fisheries in the US, and oyster houses could be found on nearly every block. Alas, pollution has killed the oyster industry on lower Manhattan, but Long Island Sound still produces lovely briny oysters — ‘though no one allows them to live long enough to reach the gargantuan sizes of the past. Most oysters are harvested when they’re a little over two years old.
Curiously enough, since oysters are filter feeders, there are plans to re-introduce them to New York harbor. They may actually begin to clean up the very pollution that ruined the industry a century ago. We might consider waiting a few decades before eating any of them though!
Recently, oysters (from places a bit farther way from Manhattan) have regained some of their lost popularity… in part, I suspect, because we diners have become more aware of local differences in foods, their terroir. Just like wine, an oyster’s flavor is a direct result of the unique characteristics of its environment, perhaps even more so. How cold and salty the water is, how much and what kind of algae (oyster food) grows there, how long the oyster is bedded there — all these factors affect the taste of the oyster that winds up on a bed of crushed ice. Generally speaking, oysters that live their lives in warm waters (Chesapeake bay and south) grow faster; they get to feed for more months of the year. That leads to plump, but milder-tasting flesh. Northern oysters tend to be smaller, brinier, and — to my taste at least — more desirable when served raw. I’m particularly fond of the ones from Eastern Canadian waters (Crassostrea virginica, the same species as the famous Wellfleets) and from Washington’s Hood Canal (Ostrea lurida expansa, such as Hama Hamas). The big eastern oysters, such as those from the Gulf of Mexico, are ideally suited to frying. It’s no accident that Oyster Po-boys originated in New Orleans. There are even bigger oysters… such as the Giant Pacific Oyster (Crassostrea angulata), but they’re used primarily for making oyster sauce.
The “oysters” that create pearls are not even oysters or, at least, edible oysters — though they are vaguely similar. Pearls form in two genera of “oysters:” Pinctada and Pteria, that are not in the same family as edible oysters. Some pearls are even found in freshwater mussels that are even further, taxonomically, from delectable oysters. Pearls are OK — but, frankly, I’m only interested in the oysters I can eat — and, easy as it is to digress into matters biological, I’ll gladly get back to the Hudson Valley’s culinary connection to these bivalves.
Maria Sanders van Rensselaer ‘s hand-written recipe book (she lived from 1749 to 1830) featured this dish: “To stew oysters. Take 1 pint of oysters, set them over a fire in their own liquor with a glass of wine, a lump of butter, some salt, pepper and mace. Let them stew gently.” When reading old recipes, we have to expect a certain vagueness that doesn’t correspond to modern recipe formats — or kitchen equipment.
South Salem resident Peter Rose has made it her life’s work to study Dutch cookery in the Hudson Valley. She’s written nine books on the subject. She also co-curated an exhibit at the Albany Institute of History and Art: “Matters of Taste, Food and Drink in Seventeenth-Century Dutch Art and Life.” The show included objects (some of which came from New Paltz’s Huguenot Street) and artworks from Holland’s greatest period of still-life painting. In the show’s catalogue, Rose included this recipe (which I’ve slightly modernized):
Serves 4 as an appetizer
¼ cup unseasoned bread-crumbs (dry or made from stale bread)
1/8 tsp. ground mace
1/8 tsp. black pepper
1 pint shucked oysters with their liquor
4 Tbsp. sweet butter
Lemon wedges for garnish
• Preheat oven to 350°F.
• Generously butter a 1-quart soufflé dish or small deep casserole.
• Combine bread-crumbs and spices.
• Place oysters in the dish, one layer thick, topped with a thin layer of the bread-crumb mixture and dot with butter. Repeat this layering, finishing with the last of the bread-crumbs and butter.
• Bake until lightly browned and bubbly, about 40 minutes.
• Serve with a crusty roll and lemon wedge.
Gary Allen’s most recent book is Can It!: The Pleasures and Perils of Preserving Foods, his third book from Reaktion. You can find more of his speculations about things he has been known to (but really shouldn’t) put in his mouth — his own foot being a prime example of the latter — on his website: onthetable.us