Thursday, April 29, 2004
Oysters: a Dish Fit to Be Served to a President
By ROGER M. GRACE
Oysters are a dish fit for a king. Or a prime minister, or an emperor. They are even fit for a president of the United States.
Grilled oysters were one of the favorite appretizers of Britain’s King Edward VII (1901-10), who also considered the dish an ideal midnight snack. Louis St. Laurent, prime minister of Canada from 1948-57, had his own recipe for oyster stew, which he dubbed Oyster St. Laurent. Vitellius, emperor of Rome during part of 69 AD, is said to have eaten 1,000 oysters in a day.
And there have been U.S. presidents, from George Washington to George W. Bush, who have enjoyed those tasty mollusks.
Last Dec. 25, columnist George Will told of the resolve of General Washington in 1783 to return home to Virginia by Christmas. He wrote:
“Washington’s journey to Mount Vernon, which he reached after dark, December 24, was a moveable feast of florid rhetoric and baked oysters.”
Thomas Jefferson, dining at a hotel in Amsterdam, downed 50 oysters and half a bottle of wine, enjoying that same meal the following night, according to a 1995 book, “Passions: The Wines and Travels of Thomas Jefferson.”
Oysters were so commonplace on the east coast in the 1700s that Jefferson is said to have apologized to his guests on one occasion for serving the dish.
Oysters are definitely “OK.” That term comes not from the “OK Corral,” but is derived from a common reference of the time to Martin Van Buren, the eighth president of the United States. Reared in Kinderhook, New York, he came to be known as “Old Kinderhook,” shortened to “OK.” A favorite food of his was oysters.
Among Abraham Lincoln’s favorite dishes was scalloped oysters. As an Illinois politico, he used roasted oysters to lure crowds to his rallies. At parties at their Springfield abode, the Lincolns would serve oysters—and nothing else. Of course in the midwest, oysters were a delicacy; they were hardly to be found in Lake Michigan. They had to be shipped in by train, on ice.
On election night, Nov. 8, 1864, Lincoln, unsure that he would be returned to office as president, was in the library at the War Department where telegraphic dispatches, with the returns, were read aloud as they came in. His assistant secretary, John Hay (later secretary of state under President William McKinley), was to recount:
“Towards midnight we had supper….The President went awkwardly and hospitably to work shovelling out the fried oysters.”
Prior to becoming the 19th president, Rutherford B. Hayes, as an Ohio lawyer, attended “Saturday night meetings of the Cincinnati Literary Club with its mix of intellectually stimulating discussions and oysters washed down with ‘liberal amounts of the local Catawba wine,’ ” according to the website of the University of Virginia.
There were news photos of President Herbert Hoover downing oysters when September came around, ushering in the “R” season (months with the letter “r,” when oysters were at their best).
In a speech delivered in 2001, Army Brig. Gen. William E. Carlson recounted a dinner which General Dwight D. Eisenhower hosted on Dec. 16, 1944, the day the Battle of the Buldge began. He told his audience at a World War II veterans’ reunion:
“Eisenhower had something special he was looking forward to that day. His old Army buddy, General Omar Bradley, was coming back from his Army Group Headquarters to spend the night at Eisenhower’s Headquarters. Eisenhower had prepared a special treat for his old friend, Brad. Taking advantage of a plane flying in from Washington, Eisenhower had ordered a bushel of oysters. Eisenhower loved oysters and he planned a special dinner for his old friend. Dinner would begin with oysters on the half shell, then oyster stew followed by fried oysters as the main course.”
There was a hitch. Bradley was allergic to oysters, and wound up eating reconstituted powdered eggs.
The man who was to become Eisenhower’s successor as president, John F. Kennedy, dined frequently at the Union Oyster House in Boston as a young lawyer. A plaque marks the booth at which he regularly sat.
Antoine’s Restaurant in New Orleans is where oysters Rockefeller was created in 1899. President Franklin Roosevelt partook of the dish at that eatery in 1936, dining with the mayor of New Orleans.
President George W. Bush—a Texan well familiar with Gulf oysters—in 2002 followed FDR’s example, accompanied by Louisiana Gov. Mike Foster.
Richard and Pat Nixon also ate oysters Rockefeller there, but long before they moved into the White House. It was on June 21, 1941—their first wedding anniversary.
By the way, minced greens are used at Antoine’s in preparing oysters Rockefeller—but not spinach, commonly used in recipes elsewhere.
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