Ornamental Separator

Familiar Fare

Oysters were not a culinary curiosity for English settlers

When English colonists arrived in Virginia, they found oysters in abundance. It may have made them feel right at home.

The mollusks were likely a known quantity for many of those early settlers. In Scotland, they were sometimes called green oysters because the shells were often coated with algae, and elsewhere in Europe, a variety of oysters were considered delicacies. In 18th-century Edinburgh, oysters were so popular that some inns had “oyster cellars” where the bivalves were served by the pile. Regardless of status or class, oysters were a favorite. Kate Stephenson, the visitor service supervisor at Gladstone’s Land, a 17th-century tenement house in Edinburgh, Scotland, told The Scotsman as much in a 2020 article.

“In the 17th and 18th century, oysters were a bar snack and it would have been much like having a bag of crisps or peanuts today,” she said.

When the English settled in Virginia, they found mounds of oyster shells discarded by the Indigenous people. That’s not surprising, said Martin Saniga, supervisor of Colonial Williamsburg’s American Indian Initiative, since the tribes who lived in the Middle Peninsula had long depended on oysters and were skilled in cooking them in a variety of ways.

“[In our research] we see them smoking oysters for preservation,” he said. “You can set them right on the hot coals. They could be roasted and even dried.”

In his book, Workin’ With the Wind: Portrait of a Chesapeake Bay Skipjack, Doug Stephens notes that by 1800, “the Chesapeake Bay was at its ecological peak.” Its unspoiled water and shorelines were ripe for harvesting. By the middle of the 19th century, sailing vessels from New England brought heavy cagelike devices with teeth to dredge the floor of the bay in search of oysters. These contraptions led to the invention of the iconic skipjack, a small, efficient dredge boat that could navigate in shallow waters.

But in the 17th and 18th centuries, prior to the evolution of food preservation and canning, oysters were harvested and consumed mostly in Virginia, according to the Virginia Museum of History & Culture. Oysters were less expensive than beef and were a staple on menus in homes and eating establishments. Cookbooks featured recipes for oyster stew, pickled oysters and oyster ice cream.

“One-pot meals in taverns would include oysters because they were cheap,” said Frank Clark, master of Historic Foodways. “The English preferred oysters to clams or shrimp and oysters were plentiful. We know they were served at the royal Governor’s Palace because inventories from the Palace in Williamsburg included barrels of pickled oysters.” Thus, oysters were a staple of both the gentry and the lower class.

Historic Foodways Journeyman Barbara Scherer provides a simple recipe for oyster soup from Mary Randolph’s cookbook. The author noted in the original recipe that thyme may be used if you find the flavor agreeable, “but take care that it does not boil in it long enough to discolour the soup.”

“I grew up on the salty oysters of Massachusetts,” said Travis Brust, the Williamsburg Inn’s executive chef. “It wasn’t until I came to Virginia that my palate was introduced to the delights of the many different flavors of oysters.”

Surface-grown oysters are cleaner, kept out of the mud and tossed about in the water flowing through their cages. Brust prefers these as a surprise delicacy (or little delight or treat) before a meal or between courses at the Inn. “These oysters are small, but they are bright white and have a deep cup shape, perfect for serving as an amuse-bouche.”

“It took me about a year to gain an appreciation for raw oysters, and now I prefer them. They are delicious served with mignonette sauce — shallots, cracked pepper and red wine vinegar.”

The traditional rich dish with which most oyster lovers are familiar is Oysters Rockefeller, first served at Antoine’s in New Orleans in 1899. In a nod to that famous traditional dish and Colonial Williamsburg patron John D. Rockefeller Jr., Brust created Oyster Rockefeller Stew.

Oyster Soup

Historic Foodways

Adapted from The Virginia House-Wife, Mary Randolph (1824)

Serves 4

1 pint oysters and their liquid

1 onion, chopped

1 ¼-inch slice ham, diced

salt and pepper to taste

1 cup cream

2 egg yolks

2 tablespoons flour

  1. Place 3 cups of water and the oysters and their liquid, onion, ham, salt and pepper into a pot.
  2. Simmer until all ingredients are cooked through.
  3. Strain. Reserve the oysters, ham and onions. Return the liquid to the pot and cook until reduced by half.
  4. Add the cream, egg yolks and flour to thicken the liquid. Stir to be sure there are no lumps.
  5. Once the liquid thickens, return the oysters, ham and onions to the pot.
  6. Heat through, but take care not to overcook.

Oyster Rockefeller Stew

Williamsburg Inn

Serves 4

For the stew:

4 strips thinly sliced bacon

2 shallots, minced

1½ tablespoons all-purpose flour

24 raw oysters, freshly shucked and undrained

Reserve 8 oysters and all oyster liquor for soup puree

Reserve 8 oysters for soup garnish

Reserve 8 oysters for fried garnish

2 tablespoons Pernod or other anise-flavored liquor

2 cups heavy cream

2 cups fresh spinach, lightly packed

1 teaspoon sea salt

½ teaspoon black pepper, freshly ground

1 teaspoon hot sauce

  1. Render the bacon in a large soup pot over medium-high heat until nearly crispy.
  2. Add the shallots and sauté for 4-5 minutes; remove the bacon and shallots with a slotted spoon and reserve.
  3. Add the flour to the bacon fat in the pan to make a roux; cook for 2 minutes.
  4. Add the oyster liquor, 8 oysters, the Pernod and the cream; bring to a simmer and stir often until they are heated through, about 1 minute.
  5. Mix in the spinach and cook until just wilted; then puree the mixture or blend in batches. Return the mixture to the pot and bring to a simmer.
  6. Add 8 more oysters and the reserved bacon and shallots to the mixture.
  7. Season with the salt, pepper and hot sauce.

For fried oyster garnish:

1 cup buttermilk

1 tablespoon hot sauce

8 oysters (reserved for fried garnish)

1 cup fine cornmeal

1 cup all-purpose flour

¼ cup parmesan cheese, finely ground

1 tablespoon Old Bay Seasoning

1 teaspoon sea salt

½ teaspoon black pepper, freshly ground

  1. Mix the buttermilk and hot sauce and allow the oysters to soak in the mixture for 30 minutes in the refrigerator.
  2. Mix together the cornmeal, flour, parmesan cheese, Old Bay Seasoning, salt and pepper.
  3. Dredge the oysters in the cornmeal mixture.
  4. In a home fryer or pot of oil heated to 375 degrees; fry the oysters for 1½ minutes until crispy.

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