Thursday, May 13, 2004
Fried Oysters: a Dish Relished By Lincoln and Twain
By ROGER M. GRACE
“No civilized man, save perhaps in mere bravado, would voluntarily eat a fried oyster.”
So wrote journalist/essayist H.L. Mencken in 1918.
The Baltimore native continued:
“Down in Maryland, where the dish originated among the Negro slaves, it is to be had only in cheap lunchrooms and at what are called oyster-suppers, usually held in the cellars of bankrupt churches. The first-class hotels would no more serve it than they would serve pig liver.”
With tongue in cheek (one would suppose), he derided the culinary barbarism of New York, scoffing:
“I have seen fried oysters served in one of the most expensive hotels of the town, and the head waiter didn’t even put a screen around the table—which would have been done in Baltimore had a United States senator, a foreign ambassador, or some other untutored magnifico insisted upon having them. And in the so-called seafood eating houses, so I hear, they are dished up without the slightest question, and all the year ’round. Imagine a Christian eating a fried oyster in the summer!”
There is no ambivalence, it’s been oft observed, when it comes to fried oysters. You either love ’em or you hate ’em.
I love ’em.
Although oysters were consumed in America by the Pilgrims in the 17th Century (and before that by native Americans), they apparently were not commonly breaded and cooked in oil until the mid-19th Century.
A couple of weeks ago, I made reference to President Abraham Lincoln passing out fried oysters on election night in 1864. It was a relatively new dish then. Gore Vidal, in his 1984 book, “Lincoln,” told of a congressman, Elihu B. Washburne, having breakfast with President-elect Lincoln in Willard’s Hotel in Washington on Feb. 23, 1861. Vidal noted:
“Washburne attacked a plate of fried oysters, a delicacy unknown in his early days, and all the more to be savored at Washington City.”
Archives of the Historical Society of Pennsylvania include an 1860s letter from a housewife to her cousin telling of weekly gatherings of friends which she described as “musical Wednesdays with fried oysters and ale.”
The dish gained considerable popularity in that era. Mark Twain, in his 1880 book, “A Tramp Abroad,” wrote:
“It has now been many months…since I have had a nourishing meal, but I shall soon have one—a modest, private affair, all to my self. I have selected a few dishes, and made out a bill of fare, which will go home in the steamer that precedes me, and be hot when I arrive—as follows:”
Fried oysters was near the top of the list.
From “Young Housekeeper’s Friend,” published in 1846, comes this recipe:
“Make a batter of two eggs, three gills of milk, two spoonfuls of flour, and some fine bread crumbs. Beat it well. Dip each oyster into the batter, and fry in lard.”
(Three gills equals three-fourths of a pint.)
Oysters can be breaded with batter, including tempura batter, cornmeal, breadcrumbs, cracker crumbs, or just plain flour, and deep-fried.
A variation is to roll them in flour and pan-fry them in butter, as at the McCormick & Schmick restaurants. There’s a recipe for the dish appearing in “Fine Old Dixie Recipes,” published (with wooden covers) in 1939. Ingredients are a quart of oysters, four tablespoons of butter, 1½ tablespoons of flour, juice of one lemon, salt and pepper, and Worcester sauce. Here are the directions:
“Remove the oysters from their juice and drain. Dredge them in flour and brown them in two tablespoons of the butter. Remove them from the pan and strain the juice through a colander or sieve. Make a brown sauce of the remaining butter and flour, add the juice from the cooked oysters. Add the lemon juice and a dash of Worcestershire sauce, pour over the oysters and serve.”
Pan-fried oysters are an ingredient in “hangtown fry.” Jan McBride Carlton’s “Old Fashioned Cookbook,” published in 1975, recites:
“The miners of California’s gold-rush days considered Hangtown Fry a meal fit for a king. Legend suggests a rich miner swaggered into Hangtown, so named for the hanging of five men from the same tree in one day, demanding the best meal money could buy. He was served a monstrous portion of fried eggs, bacon and oysters. Thereafter, ordering a Hangtown Fry was the status symbol of the day.”
The year in which that supposedly occurred is said to be 1849. The unnamed miner, some say, was served eggs that were scrambled. In any event, the dish spread through the northwest, with pan-fried oysters and bacon being paired with eggs either scrambled or formed into an omelette.
Recipes generally call for rolling the oysters in cracker crumbs.
Hangtown, not surprisingly, has been renamed. It’s now Placerville. The El Dorado Hotel, where the dish is believed to have originated, burned down in 1865.
Copyright 2004, Metropolitan News Company
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