Skip to main content

Dale Carson's Ode to Oysters

  • Author:
  • Updated:

The delicious shellfish I loved growing up has a long and vast global history. Today, both wild and cultivated—or sustainably raised—oysters are a treasured culinary favorite.

Denmark is believed to hold the largest shellfish heap in the world, largely due to the quantity of oyster shells. Oysters were, and still are, a Native American favorite as evidenced by a shell heap in Maine estimated at seven million bushels. Native oyster-use on both coasts indicates, pre-Columbus, people only cooked the bi-valve, regularly enjoying oyster stew. They were eaten raw later.

Europe has a gluttonous history with oysters. The Romans ate dozens at a time. Henry IV of England was said to have eaten 300 as an appetizer daily. Casanova reportedly ate 50 a day. By the mid-19th Century, supply was running low in Europe—as it was in North America. The oyster’s fame was at a pinnacle. In 1880, we were harvesting fifteen times more oysters in Delaware Bay than we are today. Abraham Lincoln often had oyster parties at his home in Illinois. Starting in 1842 oysters were brought by wagons across the country, packed with damp straw or ice. Oyster houses were established in major coastal cities offering “all you can eat for six cents.”

When the Dutch “bought” Manhattan island, they also took Oyster Island, known today as Ellis Island. The six cent price was pretty standard for a while, until the Gold Rush caused the cost to skyrocket—at least in San Francisco—to $20 a plate. Many of the west coast oysters also came from Washington State. West coast oysters are generally larger than the Atlantic coast. It was once remarked that eating an American oyster was like swallowing a baby.

In the United States today, there are three major species that are harvested commercially, yet all sold under different names regionally.

Olympic oysters are medium-sized. They come from Puget Sound and run about an inch and a half.

Pacific (also known as Japanese) oysters can run up to a foot long.

Eastern (Atlantic) oysters—Bluepoint being the most popular—are considered the most flavorful and briny.

What’s all the fuss about? For centuries, oysters have maintained a reputation for being an aphrodisiac, which is not all hype. They contain a high amount of zinc—an essential mineral for male potency; it is said to enhance the male sex drive. Oysters are also an excellent source of iron with 15.6 mg per cup raw; they are aso high in calcium, niacin and protein.

Back in the day, I was always told not to buy or eat shellfish in a month without an “r” in it. But this myth is now debunked due to refrigeration and better handling and shipping. Whether you like them raw on the half shell, batter-fried, grilled, steamed, baked, smoked—or a host of other preparations—there is nothing like their bright, unique taste.

Mama’s Oyster Stew

1 dozen fresh oysters, plus their liquid

2 tablespoons butter, no substitutes

1-1/2 cups half and half, or light cream (you can substitute milk)

1 dash Worcestershire sauce

½ teaspoon salt

½ teaspoon fresh ground black pepper

Melt the butter on very low heat and add the oysters. Don’t walk away but watch the oysters carefully until their edges start to curl, it happens quickly. Now add the half and half, cream or milk slowly and let simmer, never boil. Add salt, Worchestershire and pepper and serve.

Scroll to Continue

Read More

Note: Mom always served this with oyster crackers or saltines if we were out of crackers.

Scalloped Oysters

1 quart of oysters plus their liquid

1 stick unsalted butter

1 clove garlic, minced

1 cup fresh, soft breadcrumbs

1 cup crushed saltines

1 tablespoon minced fresh thyme

1 tablespoon minced fresh curley parsley

½ teaspoon salt

½ teaspoon fresh ground black pepper

2 tablespoons dry sherry

4 tablespoons heavy cream

½ teaspoon, or 2 dashes, hot pepper sauce

Preheat the oven to 425 degrees

Using a large skillet, melt the butter and add the garlic to it, cooking for about 2 minutes. Add the bread crumbs and cracker crumbs to this and stir about 5 minutes until crumbs are lightly golden. Turn off and remove pan from heat. Stir in the thyme, parsley, salt and pepper.

Spread about ½ of the crumbs in the bottom of a shallow 2-quart baking dish. Drain the oysters but reserve the liquid in a small bowl. Put the oysters in a single layer over the crumbs.

Combine the cream, sherry, hot pepper sauce and 3 tablespoons of the reserved oyster liquid in a small bowl. Now drizzle this over the oysters and cover with the rest of the crumbs. Bake uncovered about one half hour until the crumbs are golden brown and the liquid bubbles.

Dale Carson, Abenaki, is the author of three books: New Native American Cooking, Native New England Cooking and A Dreamcatcher Book. She has written about and demonstrated Native cooking techniques for more than 30 years. Dale has four grown children and lives with her husband in Madison, Connecticut.