A Mess of Oysters
I love fresh oysters. When we lived in the city, we used to go to the wharf for Christmas and New Year, get fresh oysters in their shell, mud from the Chesapeake bay still clinging to them. Later that day, Keith would scrub them clean, open them and arrange them on trays of ice. A squeeze of lemon, a little bread with good butter, a glass of champagne, more oysters, and that would New Year Dinner. They were a treat. Still are.
The Chesapeake Bay, the largest estuary in the US, provided ideal conditions for oyster to thrive – at least until the 20th century. Indian populations as well as colonists greatly enjoyed them, or – so we think – based on the shell middens found in archaeological digs.
When I first encountered shucked oysters sold in a jar, I was shocked. I had no idea they were eaten, let alone sold, not in their shell. Eventually I got accustomed to the idea and have actually used such oyster for creamy stews.
And then at a rural cafe years ago, I saw “fried oysters” on the menu. Another moment of incredulity … promptly followed by an order of fried oysters. mmm… I was not impressed. Wasn’t bad, but wasn’t great either. And that was pretty much it until last year.
That’s when – another shock! – I realized how much people loved oysters around here. A lot. Except not raw. Fried. That was also rather surprising, but I will admit that there are good fried oyster and there are bad fried oysters. I have had both and some so-so (as in my first experience). And I have learned how to make good fried oysters from Danny at the Fire Hall.
Danny started a ham & oyster dinner at $20 a head as a fund raiser for the company. As a volunteer company, while we receive some public funding, we have to get a significant portion of our budget through donations and fund raisers. A couple of weeks ago, we put together our third Ham & Oyster Dinner. People do come 30 miles to eat all-you-can-eat fried oysters (and some other things too, of course : 2 kinds of ham, mash potatoes, coleslaw, sweet potatoes, green beans, salad and – this being the South – lots and lots of dessert). Still, that’s pretty amazing to me.
145 people came.
A few gallons of oysters were stewed in cream and some eaten raw.
14 gallons of oysters, were breaded and fried. And eaten.
14 gallons. Think about that: that’s 224 cups of oysters.
Several of us breaded for 3 hours. One gallon at a time. Once breaded, they go into clean pan, covered with foil, and back in the fridge to await the fryer later that day. We fry all evening long.
There is a trick to it.
First the breading. Use finely crushed cracker meal, with just a little bit of coarse meal added for texture, as Chief Ann likes it. Spread a layer of meal at the bottom of a pan or bowl. Have more meal right next to you and a spoon ready to get it.
Beat one egg with one cup of buttermilk and a little ground black pepper. Double or triple the quantities as needed. Dump your oysters in the buttermilk mixture. Gently swish them around to ensure they are all well coated. Remove them to a sieve so that the extra buttermilk can drain through.
Using one hand (and one hand only – that’s your wet hand), move a few oysters, one at a time to the top of the cracker meal in to your prepared bowl (or pan). They should not touch one another. With your other hand (that’s your dry hand), use the spoon spread some cracker meal onto the oyster, covering them completely. Remove the breaded oyster to a clean pan using your “dry hand”.
Continue to do this until all the oysters have been breaded, adding more meal as needed. The trick to minimize the waste, is to have one “wet” hand and one “dry” hand: the wet hand touches the wet oyster. The dry hand touches cracker meal and breaded oysters only.
The oysters can be prepared a few hours in advance and refrigerated until ready to use.
Heat up the vegetable oil (we use electric fryers to save on precious stove space as the stoves are being used for all kind of side dishes), gently set your oysters in the hot oil, one at a time, and not touching. Fry for a minute or so, until golden, flip (tongs are handy). Fry 30 seconds. Remove. Eat as soon as possible.
Locavore log: they are Virginia oysters, after all!