|2003 Urbana Oyster
2004 by Claire Menck
When I think of opening oysters, I take a little trip down memory lane to my internship after culinary school. I worked for a seafood company with a chain of restaurants in Boston. One of the initial tasks for any new kitchen member was the a.m. shucking of a bushel of oysters for Oysters Rockefeller. The reason this job was given to the newest member of the kitchen was entirely for the entertainment of the more tenured kitchen staff.
It was two weeks before Mr. Pham, the Vietnamese prep cook, let me in on the secret of opening oysters. There is a small heel on the back of the oyster that is the single entry point. This one muscle is the Achilles tendon of the impenetrable mollusk. And this muscle was summarily violated on hundreds of pounds of my crusty shelled friends this past weekend at the 46th Annual Oyster Festival in Urbanna, Virginia.
Urbanna is a tiny little ocean front town just on the Virginia side of the Rappahannock River’s entry into the Chesapeake Bay. Travel about an hour and a half southeast of Fredericksburg on 17 South and you will find Urbanna, if you are lucky; the signage is a bit obscure.
However, the Oyster Festival is not. Started in 1958 as a local celebration called “Urbanna Days,” the name was changed in 1961 to play up the importance of the oyster in the economy of the little town. That seems to have been a wise decision as the festival now draws more than 75,000 people over the course of a day and a half of festivities every November paying homage to the little bi-valve.
The oyster is a legend in many realms. The aphrodisiac qualities of the bivalve are well known. And there was no better opportunity to capitalize on that than in Urbana this weekend. In the culinary world, as in any other, we live through dichotomies. One thing is countered by its opposite. It is only through this Zen play of extremes that we come to find balance in flavor.
The elements of taste in an oyster revolve around this culinary oxymoron ~ salty and sweet. Oysters come from the sea and that salinity is a basic element of their taste. But there is a lesser known side to the taste of an oyster that is too frequently lost to the fat of the fryer and too much breading. A fresh and healthy oyster is sweet in its flesh. This is a living being we are talking about, and when we open the oyster and moments later slurp it down, we are inhaling the life energy of one of the ocean’s creatures. With that inhalation should come the pleasant sweetness of the breath. If there is a mineral quality to the oyster, an almost iron taste, things have gone wrong.
In fact, this nasty taste is a direct result of one of the oyster’s legendary aspects. This one is economic. In the late 1800’s oysters were so plentiful on the Atlantic coastline they were referred to as Chesapeake Gold. From the Bay to the schucker’s hand, an oyster’s value multiples exponentially at every step of the food production chain. That’s caused some problems. Over-fishing has depleted the once mighty population of oysters in the Chesapeake Bay over 95% since the hey-days of the 1850’s when oysters were in their prime. Add in pollution and its resulting diseases, and you have an entire eco-system at risk. The Chesapeake Bay balances on the brink, and oysters are one of the primary elements in the prophecy of its future.
Oysters are filters. That’s how they make their pearls. They take sand, pollutants, tiny microscopic plants, and sediment in, and filter that murkiness out of the water. This allows the light to reach ocean plants and animals on the bottom. Without the little mollusks, it’s awfully dark down there, and that is not conducive to life.
This is the central theme of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation’s efforts. And they were present at the Oyster Festival in Urbanna this weekend, trying to balance the story of the oyster’s inherent mirth with the reality of this resource’s declining future. The people behind the Save the Bay bumper stickers have worked to make the cause of the oyster a regional imperative. The “Bay people” have truly galvanized the less informed of the population behind returning the oyster population to its 1850 levels by 2010. These folks are the people of the Bay… the watermen and women, the landowners, the lovers of the sea. The governors of three states and the mayor of the District of Columbia have all sworn their allegiance and the money of their constituencies to the cause. It is perhaps the only politically neutral topic in the Mid-Atlantic. We must save the oysters because champagne doesn’t taste quiet as good with any other single ingredient on the sea’s menu.
This brings us to the third realm of legend this little creature inhabits, and that is a culinary one. Urbanna gives a glimpse into the Americanized version of an oyster’s potential. Most notable is the American Legion’s Oyster Fritter; served between two slices of white bread. I don’t recommend you eat it that way, the bread is there merely to sop up the grease, and it takes away from the flavor of the oysters floating in a bed of fried dough. Wash this down with an ice cold beer, and life on a sunny afternoon on the Chesapeake Bay looks pretty good. Don’t stop there however, go for the oyster stew. It’s a bit hot today, but on a cold, rainy Mid-Atlantic day, this is one of the Founding Mother’s creations that built a revolutionary force, and has kept it going for over 200 years.
Were I at home, I would pair the stew this with a nice glass of Chablis wine. The mineral taste of Chablis balances the salty sweetness of oysters, and gives a much needed edge to the creaminess of this soup. Top with some fresh chopped parsley and dip in a little crusty French bread, and all is well in the world.
Any discussion of the culinary merits of an oyster cannot be complete without some reference to the purest and most refined way to dine on fresh Crassostrea virginica - raw. There is an art to this practice. Oysters are not slimy. They are slick, and it takes real power to ingest something so close to life. To assuage any guilt over the murder of the mollusk, thank the powers of the sea for their bounty, and then begin. I insist on at least two main condiments: hot sauce and lemons. This is not the regional way of eating oysters though. According to Fisherman Ray Beck, the recipe is as follows: “a good chair, a bushel of oysters, a good sharp oyster knife, [and] a bowl of vinegar [with] salt and pepper in it.” Amen. For those of you more inclined to impress, add some champagne mignonette and a glass of champagne. Regardless, the oyster is protein fit for the likes of a king, and his valet.
The festival in Urbanna ends early Saturday evening, something the organizers might think about changing. If you don’t want to hang around Urbanna and watch the street sweepers clean up the shells, head east on Route 33 to Deltaville and stop at J&W Seafood for some fresh fish and shrimp. Just a few miles down the road, if you are lucky enough to get a room, you can throw those on a grill outside the Dockside Inn, also in Deltaville. With its wooden promenade decks, you step back thirty years to the once hip Hamptons. Okay, add a little Jimmy Buffet into that and you are closer to the mark. The Dockside captures a lazy peace that lets you ignore the stress of your urban life, if only for a weekend, and revel in the moment. Finish the night hanging out on the deck with the other patrons, and you are sure to meet more than a handful of very friendly, jubilant folks vacationing away from their ‘real lives.’
On Sunday morning, grab your New York Times or Washington Post from the local grocers, and head for the Boathouse Café. Located off of 33 in Deltaville, the restaurant is in a renovated boathouse perched on the shore at the mouth of the Rappahannock River sine 1936. The seafood quiche is ripped with the ocean’s flavor, and the date scones are topped with a not-too-sweet cream cheese frosting that is not so heavy you regret it an hour later. And on your way out of town later that afternoon, stop at Taylor’s Restaurant for one more pound of steamed shrimp and a final dozen oysters on the half shell. You’ll have to wait an entire year to get oysters this fresh again.
Claire Menck lives, and eats, in Independence, KS.
Oysters Aphrodisiac (From Sealanes Fresh Seafood Market)
1 Dozen oysters (opened in their shell)
Sliced Smoked Salmon
Red or Black Caviar
Lemon or Lime Juice
Add Teaspoon of Sour Cream to Oyster top with half teaspoon of Smoked Salmon and dollop of Caviar
Add Lemon or Lime Juice as required
For best results enjoy with a bottle of Sparkling White Wine or Chardonnay in Romantic Setting
Cream of Oyster Stew (From the Lower Eastern Shore Heritage Committee)
4 tablespoons butter
1/2 cup chopped celery
1/2 cup chopped onion
1/2 cup diced carrots
1/4 teaspoon white pepper
1 10.5 ounce can cream of mushroom soup
1/2 cup milk
1/4 cup chopped parsley
1 pint Maryland oysters, standards
Melt butter in a two quart sauce pan. Sauté celery, onion and carrots in melted butter for
5 minutes. Add white pepper and liquor that has been drained from oysters. Add mushroom soup and milk; stir until smooth. Heat to low simmer. Add parsley and oysters. Heat until oysters are plump and edges begin to ruffle. Serve immediately. Makes 5 cups total, 4 servings of 1-1/4 cups each. Suggestion: add a splash of sherry right before serving.
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