For openers

The time has come,” the Walrus said, “to talk of many things:” — Lewis Carroll

And so it begins.  Welcome to “Dj’eat?” A blog about food, cooking, and anything related that might strike my fancy.

Do we need another food blog?  Probably not.  But at the encouragement of others, I hereby offer up these thoughts on food.

We’re into the “R” months, the start of the traditional season for oysters. While they are available year round, conventional wisdom dating from the time before there was reliable refrigeration suggested only eating oysters in the months with an “R” because , in the northern hemisphere, they were the cooler months of the year.  There is also the fact that our eastern oysters spawn in the summer, thus making them less plump and delectable from spending their reserves procreating.

And so it was that friend Mark and I ushered in this “time of the mollusks” by making a run to Bivalve Packing Company in Port Norris, NJ.

We make these pilgrimages, not just to stock up on a favored shellfish, but also to visit this nearly forgotten corner of New Jersey.  Tucked along the Maurice (pronounced Morris) River in Cumberland County, Bivalve, Port Norris and Shellpile are reminders of the once great oyster industry that thrived here. (check out some of Mark’s photos of the area here)

From the time the first European settlers arrived on this continent, the plentiful oysters of the eastern seaboard fed the gentry and hoi polloi alike.  The Delaware Bay at its peak produced over 2 million pounds of oysters a year.  The packing houses and oyster sloops employed many people and essentially created the towns of Bivalve, Shellpile and Port Norris.

In the 20th century, deteriorating water quality, overfishing and disease nearly wiped out oyster harvesting from the Delaware estuary, but the towns survived and the watermen persevered.  Today, the industry is doing better and we love supporting our hardworking friends on the Bay Shore.

 “He was a bold man that first ate an oyster.” — Jonathan Swift

I can’t remember when I ate my first oyster.  I remember as a child eating clams at summer picnics, but I can’t pinpoint the date of my introduction to the ritzy cousin of the little neck.

More difficult to open than a clam, oysters seemed an exotic and somewhat exclusive food to me.  I only ate them in restaurants or raw bars or purchased them at the market already shucked.  The latter was good if you were making oyster stew or another dish that didn’t require service “on the half shell.” 

The convenience factor of being able to buy a couple of pints of oysters enabled me to take the fixings to work where, in the office’s communal  kitchen/lunch room, I would prepare a batch of oyster stew to share with a coworker.  Each November, we’d take an extended lunch break to enjoy some non-work related conversation and a couple of bowlfuls of oysters swimming in a warm, buttery bowl of cream flavored with the oyster liquor, Worcestershire sauce, and a dash of Tabasco.

Then I caught an episode of Julia Child’s cooking show on public television.  In an offhand, totally “Julia” moment, she advised us viewers that a plain old-fashioned beer can opener (church key) could be pressed into service as a tool for prying open an oyster.  That little tidbit of news freed me from being dependent upon others to shuck my oysters and suddenly opened up a new world of oyster preparation and consumption.

At about the same time, a neighbor and some of his friends made a trip down to the eastern shore of the Chesapeake Bay.  At one of the small towns, they visited a packing house and brought back sacks of oysters fresh from the bay and at an incredibly cheap price.  I purchased a few dozen from them for my own consumption and, using the clever trick of Ms. Child’s, opened and ate them accompanied by horseradish, Tabasco, lemon juices and the obligatory Original Trenton Cracker (OTC’s).

I was elated with my new found skill. I could now enjoy oysters anytime and anywhere I found them available to me, shucked or not. 

A few years later a chance conversation with one of the owners of the company I was then working for revealed that he had recently bought some oysters and took them home only to realize he didn’t know quite how to go about opening them.  We discussed this further which led to the picking of a date for me to provide a lesson in oyster shucking.  The day came and I brought a cooler loaded with oysters, ice and some Guinness* to the office.  In the middle of the afternoon I left my desk for the kitchen and started shucking and serving oysters to the staff and clients, paired with a nice glass of stout for those who desired it.

The periodic runs my friends made to Maryland for oysters morphed into runs down to Port Norris, NJ and the Bivalve Packing Company.  Before too long, I started making my own trips down once or twice a year to buy plentiful, cheap, local oysters to feed my (and my friends’) need for these delectable mollusks.

Broiled oysters

Broiled oysters

Now it’s an accepted part of the cool weather seasons.  Up early on a weekday morning when we have off from work, we jump in the car and head south to Port Norris.  After picking up the day’s order (usually at least two, often more, boxes of 100 each), we’ll poke around the area a little before heading to the Maurice River Diner for a late breakfast before heading back home.

This last trip, I had it my mind to coax the diner staff into preparing a Hangtown Fry for us.

 This dish is said to have originated in the town of Placerville, California (formerly known as “Hangtown” for the number of hangings that took place there) during the gold rush days of the mid 19th century.  The story of the genesis of the Hangtown Fry follows two main threads.  The first claims that a miner who had recently struck it rich strode into the main hotel in town and demanded to be fed the “most expensive meal in the house.”  On hand were the following ingredients: bacon, expensive because it had been transported from the east coast, eggs (presumably produced by local hens) and oysters brought in from the San Francisco Bay some 100 miles to the west…a costly endeavor before motorized transport and mechanical refrigeration.

A second story centers on the “last meal” wish of a man condemned to die in the noose.  Asked what he wished to have, the clever fellow is said to have asked for bacon, eggs and oysters knowing that it would take time to procure the ingredients and thereby prolong his execution by a day or two.

Since there is no clear determination as to which, if either, legend is the truth it is not surprising that the recipe for the Hangtown Fry is itself debated.  Some say the eggs are scrambled with the oysters and served over two crisp rashers of bacon.  Others suggest it should be more of a bacon omelet with breaded, fried oysters folded into the middle.

It all proved moot when we inquired of our server at the diner if they could whip up a version for us.  Seems this establishment infrequently offers oysters on the menu and so didn’t have the key ingredient.

Not to be deterred, the next morning I shucked a half dozen oysters and made my own version of the Hangtown Fry.

I started by slowly browning off two slices of thick cut bacon. 

Bacon

Bacon

Once they were done, I removed them to drain on some paper towel and removed all but a couple of tablespoons of the bacon grease from the frying pan.  Into the pan I poured three eggs I’d beaten together with some salt and pepper and started making a basic omelet.  When the eggs were about half done, I tossed in the shucked oysters, drained of their liquor.  As the eggs continued to cook, I broke the bacon up into pieces and sprinkled it over the omelet just before folding it over and sliding it onto the plate.Hangtown Fry

A grand start to the day and a great start to oyster season!

*Stout, particularly Guinness, and oysters are a great pairing.  I spent half our trip to Ireland seeking just that combination and finally found it at the Old Stand Public House in Waterford.

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3 Responses to “For openers”

  1. Mark Stradling Says:

    I look forward to reading more of your posts on this blog.
    My goal this winter is to combine oysters and pancetta in a sumptuous dish.
    I have a pretty good idea about how to do that. But we’ll see.

  2. Jim Carlucci Says:

    Thanks, Mark. And I look forward to sharing more of your photographs!

    And, funny thing, I picked up a whole pork belly today. Some will be made into pancetta, some into bacon, and the trimmings into salt pork (for things like chowder—hint, hint!).

  3. Oysters “R” good « Dj'eat? Says:

    […] “R” good By Jim Carlucci I’ve written about oysters here […]

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