The online magazine
dedicated to the
discussion & revival
of British foodways.

NO.43
WINTER2014

On oysters: The British origin of a robust American tradition.

1. The transfer of tradition.

We admit that at times we stray from the primary purpose of this magazine, even if we think our tangents do arise from an ongoing examination of British foodways. This month is different, at least if we are to believe Robb Walsh. He is unequivocal in Sex, Death & Oysters: “Britain is, after all, the source of American oyster traditions.” (Robb 107)

It is no passing aside. Elsewhere Walsh elaborates on his theme:

“In the British Isles, oyster celebrations were part of the feast of St. Michael, or Michaelmas, celebrated around September 24. The United States inherited the oyster-festival tradition, along with a lot of our oyster culture, from England and Ireland.” (Walsh 60)

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Michaelmas must have been one of the better ecclesiastical holidays. It does not appear that much pious cant was involved in the exaltation of this particular saint, and ‘his’ day predates the Christian church. It falls near the autumnal equinox, which pagan peoples have celebrated before recorded history. Along with oysters, goose was and is a traditional food for Michael’s feast, so that celebrants get to enjoy two of the Editor’s favorite things for dinner on the day.

The dominant influence of Britain on the way that Americans consider the oyster involves a certain sad irony. As with baking in the southern states and brewing nationwide, Americans have become keepers of the British flame when it comes to the cultivation and consumption of oysters.

 

2. Preservation afar.

Today, according to Walsh, “the Irish don’t eat many oysters;” what once was the street food of London and staple of its masses goes largely unknown in Britain too. The pollution of estuaries and consequent outbreak of disease and death among eaters of the tainted oyster led, understandably enough, to a stark decline in consumption during the nineteenth century. The English oyster never recovered in gustatory terms:

“The oyster, which was considered the most common food of the poor in the time of Dickens, completely disappeared from English food culture…. Most English people don’t even consider oysters edible any more.” (Walsh 137)

The oyster has reappeared in Britain, and London supports some of the most elegant oyster bars in the world, but they and the oysters that they serve are expensive. The British harvest remains miniscule and the native oyster is unknown to all but the rich or reckless.

3. A tale of three cities.

That is not the case in the United States. The big oyster populations nurtured by the great water systems of eastern as well as western cities fell victim to pollution to no less an extent than their cousins in the Thames, Medway or Clyde. American oyster consumption therefore declined, but with spectacular exceptions, notably in New England, New Orleans and San Francisco. Those exceptions have become the rule as oyster cultivation and consumption have rocketed all over the United States.

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Some oysters lived in waters far enough from the conurbations to escape obliteration, and all manner of inlets and coves from Rhode Island down Maine have consistently yielded prizes for the dogged oyster hunter.

The Union Oyster House in Boston and its worn ellipse of a wooden bar, where Daniel Webster washed down dozens per session with an endless stream of brandy, endures as one of the oldest restaurants in America. It is no aberration: Long Island and New England oyster populations remained big enough for shipment across the continent throughout the age of rail.

Oysters have returned to waters once polluted too; in the Pawcatuck River they may not yet reach the legendary size that our grandparents recall, but following a massive cleanup program big beds of them live along its banks.

In New Orleans, where the appetite for oysters has remained insatiable since before the foundation of the city in 1718, oysters are nothing if not egalitarian and can cost as little as six dollars a dozen. No cuisine, not regional nor national, comes close to New Orleans in the inventive ways that this small city with so big a soul celebrates the oyster.

Raw oysters hit the table not only on the shell, but also shucked and pickled or filmed in a lemony sauce. Bartenders build all kinds of shooters by plopping the shucked meat of an oyster into shots of booze with or without ‘mixers’ of tomato juice, Worcestershire, lemon and the like. Cooked dishes include icons like Oysters Rockefeller in its endless iterations but also Oysters Bienville, Kathryn, Ohan and Suzette from Arnaud’s alone.

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At Galatoire’s

Galatoire’s deep fries its oysters en brochette with bacon. At Mosca’s, the oyster cook roasts their famous Oysters Mosca under breadcrumbs and garlic butter; the legendary ones from Drago’s come charcoal broiled. Cochon barbecues them on the half shell and elsewhere they go into stews, gumbos and soup, including the classic oyster and artichoke found all over town.

Creole cooks do much the same at home. They also bake oysters in pies, add them to jambalaya and tuck them into tenderloin to make carpetbagger steak.

For that matter, no city comes close to New Orleans in the inventive ways that it exploits the inedible. Native Americans had eaten oysters by the hundreds of thousands before the advent of Europeans in North America, and deposited the shells in great middens.

These caches of shell provided a means to build the early city. It turned out that

“exposed soft brick, which was increasingly used for raised foundations to minimize flooding, provided scant protection against the elements until settlers discovered that the area’s numerous Indian oyster-shell middens could be made into lime and used to plaster exposed surfaces.” (Powell 65)

According to Walsh,

“New Orleans is literally made out of oysters. Some of the oldest buildings in the city are made of a Native American version of concrete called ‘tabby.’ The oyster shell was used for both the lime and the aggregate. Oyster-shell piles were once burned along the coast to provide the lime for cement. Oyster-shell-aggregate was used to pave roads up until the 1960s.” (Walsh 46)

In San Francisco, the “tradition of eating half-shell oysters never died out” even if the local species did. Pollution from all the cities and mines that rimmed the great bay killed them all during the Gold Rush so the railroads brought eastern oysters west and, in 1895, enterprising oyster farmers began to plant them in cleaner havens all along the Pacific coast. (Walsh 175-76)

 

4. Back to the start.

How, a patient reader may ask, does any of this implicate a soggy archipelago as far as six thousand miles from the setting of our story? In part it is the setting itself, for as noted at the outset, ancient British patterns of oyster production and consumption would determine American practices into the twenty-first century.

Along with fermented fishguts and sweetened wine, the Romans relished raw oysters and even relished them accompanied by the guts and wine. Apocryphal sources even cite the oyster as a Roman incentive to occupy Britain. (Dutton 53) The cold waters of British seas provoked oysters to produce levels of glycogen unneeded for survival in the Mediterranean. Glycogen tastes sweet, so that English oysters do too and the Romans took note.

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I’ll have some oysters with my guts and wine.

Their innovative system of supply inadvertently made English oysters taste even better than the ones they initially found. At first at Colchester and then all along the British coasts, Roman boatmen

“harvested oysters from distant reefs and stored a big supply in brackish pools closer to their settlements. The oysters got fatter and sweeter in the plankton-rich backwaters, where freshwater from the River Colne mixes with saltwater from the North Sea.” (Walsh 110)

These oysters were too good for consumption only by frontier garrisons wary of Angle, Saxon, Pict and Jute. The Romans therefore packed barrels of them in snow for export to continental settlements and even all the way home to the Eternal City, a creative early example of refrigeration. (Walsh 107; Dutton 57)

 

5. The English system of oyster cultivation.

We think of farming oysters instead of foraging for them in the wild as a recent practice, but its antecedents predate modernity. Early on, English oysterers followed Roman example to create ‘oyster layings’ where they stored bigger oysters to sell and kept smaller ones to grow.

In places like Colchester the tidal reach is extreme, so the English innovated in turn. They “dug pits in these intertidal areas for their layings” the size of modern swimming pools. “When the water receded at low tide, the pits remained full of water, so the oysters stayed wet” and did not spoil. (Walsh 110, 112)

The oystermen, however, had no riparian rights. Those were monopolized by magnates who owned the land along the shore, and they leased the laying pools in little lots along the lines of agricultural tenancy that were familiar to them. The landowners, however, did not control the big offshore reefs of oyster condominia that provided the source of supply for these pre-industrial aquafarms, and the oystermen therefore remained relatively free to wrest a living from the sea. (Walsh 112)

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A demure warrior visits the layings

 

6. Down on the farm.

Any ostentatious disdain for ‘farmed’ oysters is misplaced, unless distaste for any oyster at all dominates the discussion. Even those hardy New England and Long Island survivors have gotten a helping human hand since the end of the eighteenth century. What we call Blue Points today, for example, come from the shorelines of Long Island Sound. Blue Point itself stands by the Great South Bay on the other side of the island. As the bay became gradually and then grotesquely polluted, baymen seeded the sound with its oysters. They still thrive there today, whether taken from waters on the Connecticut or New York sides of the sound.

Oysters, both wild and cultivated, do nothing but good for the ecosystem where they live. Unlike salmon or shrimp, they require no feed. They do consume deoxygenators like algae to keep waters clean and healthful for other species.

Over ninety percent of the oysters eaten worldwide get some kind of support, and for good reason. Exploitation, pollution and disease have obliterated huge stocks since the eighteenth century. As Rowan Jacobsen explains:

“The combination of overharvesting and increased erosion finished off virtually every natural oyster bed in the United States. As the beds emptied--Wellfleet, 1775; Manhattan, 1820; Narragansett, 1830; San Francisco, 1870; Long Island, 1870; Willapa, 1900--aquaculture stepped up to replace them.” (Jacobsen 58)

The oldest existing oyster cultivar in America, the Cotuit Oyster Company, dates all the way to 1837. On the southern shore of Cape Cod, “unspoiled Cotuit Bay has changed little, and the oysters still have the bright and briny flavor they are famous for.” (Jacobsen 109)

The British in North America replicated their system and it continues on in the United States in the guise of the ‘oyster lease.’ Most oyster cultivars therefore operate in waters leased from private owners or the state.

Washington, unlike most states, allows private ownership of the shoreline, a law enacted explicitly to protect oyster farmers from poaching. Oystermen there have been able to build low dikes similar to the English laying pits on their land along the Olympic peninsula to create shallow pools. As in eighteenth century England, the pools keep the oysters wet despite the steep tidal drop characteristic of northern latitudes.

Thanks to the dikes,

“Olympia farmers used a system like the English one. They would harvest native Olympic oysters from common fishing grounds and deposit them in the privately owned tidal pools until they reached market size.” (Walsh 191)

Anglo-American practice, predictably enough, contrasts with the French dirigiste creation of state ‘oyster parks’ during the Second Empire. They in turn led to a national program of highly regulated oyster farming that remains in place today. (Walsh 137) French production is both voluminous and wasteful. France grows some two billion oysters every year but “tens of thousands of tons get bulldozed annually to keep the price from collapsing.” (Walsh 138; Jacobsen 18) An oyster midden looms along with the butter mountain and wine lake in France thanks to the inequity of the EU Common Agricultural Policy.

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Since the early nineteenth century, most French oysters have shared a foreign ancestry. The hardy and prolific Pacific species native to the west coast of the United States, crassostrea gigas or “kudzu of oysters,” supply 99% of the market there. They were introduced after disease rendered the native species of flat oyster, ostrea edulis, nearly extinct and remain more popular not only because they are easier to grow but also because they taste better to most people.

The European flat oyster, frequently called Belon after a French bay no matter its actual place of origin, tastes “off-putting and overwhelming, like an anchovy dipped in zinc.” According to Jacobsen, “[a]lmost anybody who tastes a Belon hates it. Even the people who sell them don’t like them.” (Jacobsen 21, 20) Their unpopularity, and the difficulty that growers encounter in keeping them alive long enough to reach edible size, ironically makes them prohibitively expensive to the few gourmands who relish the fishy flavor.

 

7. An argument over origins.

American oyster foodways derive to a great extent from English models. Antecedents to the oyster stews of New England and northern California can be found in eighteenth century English sources. The riotous proliferation of oyster recipes in New Orleans may be all its own as in so many things--except for the most iconic of them all, a sandwich known variously as an oyster loaf, poor boy, peacemaker or mediatrice.

Whatever its place of origin, New Orleans has made the oyster loaf its own. The city seldom resists temptation not to leave well enough alone, so while the humblest sandwich stand assembles an oyster loaf or poor boy of oysters simply fried, the city also sauces them with blue cheese or barbecue or both, ‘dresses’ them with all manner of vegetables both pickled and fresh, and even sometimes throws dice of fried tasso between the bread. 

As recently as April, a friendly dispute arose in the New Orleans Times-Picayune about the origin of the oyster loaf. According to Dave Gilson of Mother Jones, an upstart from, horror, San Francisco--the crescent city’s putative culinary rival--had claimed first use at an evil dive called Gobey’s Saloon sometime before it was destroyed in the earthquake of 1906. Gobey’s itself sounds appealing if dicey based on an 1893 report from The San Francisco Call. One of its habitués, Smoothy the cocaine fiend, was apprehended in the adjacent alley with a stolen can of gasoline, apparently bent on arson. The saloon itself was said to feature “Pitfalls for Women. Scenes of Gilded Vice and Squalid Sin” and, apparently, oyster loaves too. (Gilson)

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Brett Anderson, an estimable food reporter at the Times-Picayune, did a little retaliatory research in response. He gives Mary Randolph’s Virginia House-Wife from 1824 the quick hook because her instruction to make ‘oyster loaves’ “reads like a recipe for oyster stew on bread.” Anderson also notes that Hannah Glasse published “a similar recipe” in London during 1747 (Anderson), which should not surprise anyone; Randolph and other plagiarists lifted it and other passages straight from Glasse.

The nomenclature of oyster loaves merits a digression. Anderson notes that

“New Orleans diners have, of course, been calling oyster sandwiches like Gilson describes po-boys or poor boys (or, if you must, po’boys) since the 1929 transit strike. They were calling them oyster loaves--a term still in semi-regular use at local restaurants--before that.” (Anderson)

He is not quite right. ‘Poor boy’ indisputably is a term indigenous to New Orleans and probably did first appear during the course of a transit strike there in 1929, although rival origin myths also circulate. According to the entry in the Encyclopedia of American Food and Drink, for example, “the term ‘poor boy’ for a sandwich goes back to 1875.” (Mariani)

In any event the term ‘oyster loaf’ does predate ‘poor boy’ by a considerable number of years, but in a considerable number of places beyond just New Orleans or San Francisco. A poor boy itself can be filled with anything, and in fact the oyster loaf is just one of many kinds of poor boys, so we will excise the New Orleanian term for present purposes.

There can be no doubt that the oyster loaf originated somewhere other than San Francisco. Gilson’s only source dates to 1926. An article in The San Franciscan states that “after a night with the boys, they felt the urge to placate the lady of their heart with a tid-bit and the Chinaman at Gobey’s Saloon thought up a [sic] oyster loaf.” (Anderson) This is as unoriginal as it is badly written.

A link from the Mother Jones essay reveals that The San Francisco Call had published an article entitled ‘The Oyster Loaf’ in, coincidentally enough, 1893. It repeats in considerably more detail the story of the errant husband who returns to his enraged wife with a “peacemaker… also known as an oyster loaf.” The Call, however, lifted the article from the New York World; it ascribes the story not to San Francisco but to New Orleans and makes no reference whatsoever to the west coast city, three facts that Anderson inexplicably fails to notice. (Call; Anderson)

His article suffers from much speculation, but Anderson does trace the term oyster loaf as something that contains fried as opposed to stewed oysters back to 1873, with the help of the rigorous Tulane graduate student Rien Fertel. He found the reference, to a peacemaker or “a dozen fried oysters on a loaf,” in the New Orleans Daily Picayune. It too includes the tale of an errant husband returning with the peace offering, but in this case, and to the horror of his wife, the poor boob had taken home the wrong package, of schnaaps instead of oysters; he “never recovered her respect.” (Anderson)

Gobey’s did not even open until 1877, and besides, San Franciscans have a reckless need to take credit for anything culinary that is good. They share this penchant with its most egregious practitioners, the French, who according to one source even claim they invented the sandwich in general. (Larousse) They did not.

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Oyster loaf at Casamento’s

 

8. The English way of eating oysters.

Enter the British, which they unsuccessfully sent an army of veteran Peninsular and West Indian regiments to attempt in 1815. It was not the first foray of British travelers to New Orleans, and the authoritative John Folse ascribes a major influence on the early development of Louisiana foodways to the English. (Folse 87-103)

He also points out that, in stark contrast to the contemporary English, most of the eighteenth century French in Louisiana did not even consider oysters edible, ironically enough the situation found in England itself today. (Tucker 64)

The English influence is discernable in a number of Louisiana techniques, including the savory pie, a preparation equally beloved in New Orleans and unknown to the French. Add the holy trinity and an adjustment of spice to an English oyster pie: Alchemy renders it classic Creole. Little Natchitoches meat pies are recognizably Cornish in origin, spiced up pasties that may get an extravagant slick of molten cheese. Bread pudding, unequivocally attributed to England by the great Dumas, appears on virtually every menu in town.

We ought not, and need not, stray far from the oyster here. English oyster dressings or stuffings enhance poultry and fish; so do oyster sauces, and bacon pairs with oysters in various ways. Angels on horseback, for example, become oysters brochette in New Orleans, and perks up oyster pies on both sides of the Atlantic.

The earliest references to frying oysters are English and they gave New Orleans its traditional taste for pickled oysters too. Folse himself charts recipes of obvious English derivation both for devilled oysters and a steak and oyster pie. (Folse 412, 534)

On the oyster loaf, Richard Campanella wrote in response to Anderson’s article in the Times Picayune to

“question the premise that this foodway was necessarily ‘invented’ at a certain time and place, by a certain individual or operation…. In investigating the documented ‘origins’ of oyster loaves… researchers may be actually uncovering the terms we use to describe these vernacular dishes. That’s still an interesting question--but it’s a linguistic question more than a culinary one.” (Campanella)

 

9. English oyster loaves.

While Campanella’s may be a sane response to all the chauvinism attendant to the discussion of origin myths, it would seem that in the case of the oyster loaf he goes too far. We first find real evidence of sandwiches in the guise of a filling between slices of bread before the eighteenth century, and we find it in England.

Jane Grigson, whom any of us dispute at our peril, is unequivocal on the oyster loaf:

“This is one of the best of eighteenth-century dishes. It was taken to America, and became popular in New Orleans in the nineteenth century, where it acquired the endearing name of la mediatrice. ‘It was the one thing a man felt might effectively stand between his enraged wife and himself when he came home after spending an evening carousing in the saloons of the French Quarter.’ He would buy his mediator in the market there, and hurry home with it, all crisp and hot.” (Grigson 110; the source of the passage she quotes unfortunately is not identified)

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Mrs. Grigson’s recipe hollows out bread, brushes it inside and out with melted butter and toasts it in a hot oven before pouring creamed oysters into the hollow.

The fascinating recipe for an oyster loaf from a Reading (England) manuscript of 1760 cited by Elisabeth Ayrton stuffs a hollow loaf with raw oysters and veal or pork forcemeat, brushes scoured bread with egg and fries it until golden before a stint in the oven.

Neither of these English recipes uses deep fried oysters so both of them fail Anderson’s test in terms of meeting the criteria of a modern oyster loaf. Even so, they quite obviously are the antecedents of the crispy New Orleans version.

Besides, he is a little doctrinaire; mid-twentieth century recipes for the New Orleans oyster loaf do not always demand a deep fryer. A 1944 recipe for ‘La Mediatrice’ by Lily Haxworth Wallace (“This is how it is prepared in New Orleans.”) also hollows the bread and browns it in an oven before filling the loaf “with broiled or fried oysters.” (Wallace 99) Wallace also includes instructions for a loaf filled with creamed oysters (“Oyster Loaf No. 1”). Incidentally, the first ‘recipe’ in her book explains how to serve ‘oysters on the half shell.’ (Wallace 27, 98)

These earliest recipes for oyster loaves fried the bread rather than oysters until crisp; we do not find much evidence of deep frying anything, including oysters, before the nineteenth century. Some recipes, however, come pretty close.

According to Mrs. Ayrton, “[i]n the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries great dishes of fried oysters with slices of lemon used to be served.” The recipe that follows her assertion achieves an effect identical to deep frying using a similar technique. The oysters are briefly simmered in their liquor, nothing more, then dredged in a sequence of flour, egg and breadcrumb, and pan fried in three ounces of smoking fat: “Drop in the oysters and brown quickly. They should only be a minute in the pan or they will become hard and tough.” (Ayrton 247)

All of this is more than a little tantalizing, however, because Mrs. Ayrton provides no source for either her historical analysis or instructions, although she does say that it is a ‘traditional English recipe.’ (Ayrton 245) Nonetheless she is nothing if not scrupulous in her other pronouncements and we have no reason to doubt these two either.

This recipe from 1764 is by Elizabeth Moxon:

“Take a score or two of the largest oysters you can find, and the yolks of four or five eggs, beat them very well, put to them a little nutmeg, pepper and salt, a spoonful of fine flour, and a little raw parsley shred, so dip in your oysters, and fry them in butter a light brown.”

Moxon makes no mention of bread in connection with her fried oysters; instead, she says that “[t]hey are very proper to lie about either stew’d oysters, or any other fish, or made dishes.” (Moxon) Mrs. Ayrton, however, serves them on toast.

 

10. A coda of sorts.

Purists refuse to countenance anything but an oyster raw, and the French in particular have nearly never cooked them. The English slurp them too but in keeping with the promiscuous nature of their national cuisine, also cook them in multiple ways. That tradition in turn spawned the riotous tradition of cooked oyster recipes in the United States and particularly New Orleans. It could not have come from anyplace else.

All manner of oyster recipes appear in the practical.

 

Sources:

Brett Anderson, “Was the oyster loaf invented in (gasp!) San Francisco?,”
New Orleans Times-Picayune (20 April 2012)

Anon., “The Oyster Loaf,” San Francisco Call, Vol. 94 No. 88 (21 August 1893)

Elisabeth Ayrton, The Cookery of England (London 1974)

Richard Campanella, “Chewing on the premise that the oyster loaf was ‘invented’:
            A letter to the editor,” New Orleans Times-Picayune (26 April 2012)

Joan Parry Dutton, The Good Fare and Cheer of Old England (New York 1960)

John Folse, The Encyclopedia of Cajun and Creole Cuisine (Gonzales LA 2005)

Dave Gilson, “Then: Booze, Oysters, and ‘Gilded Vice.’ Now: Mother Jones,” Mother Jones (18 April 2012)

Jane Grigson, English Food (London 1974)

John Mariani, Encyclopedia of American Food and Drink (New York 1999)

Prosper Montagne, Larousse Gastronomique (New York 1997)

Susan Tucker (ed.), New Orleans Cuisine; Fourteen Signature Dishes and Their Histories
           
(Jackson MS 2009)

Lily Haxworth Wallace, Sea Food Cookery (New York 1944)

Rob Walsh, Sex, Death & Oysters (Berkeley CA 2009)