Thursday, May 27, 2004
Oysters on Toast: a Starter From the 19th Century
By ROGER M. GRACE
In colonial days, the cavity of many a fowl was packed with oyster stuffing. The congruency of oysters and toasted bread led to the development of various dishes teaming these two ingredients.
There was, in the 19th Century, an oyster craze in the United States. Oysters were frequently served on toast as a prelude to the entrée.
Following the end of his administration, President Rutherford B. Hayes held a dinner at his home in Fremont, Ohio on Oct. 27, 1881 at which William A.Wheeler, who had been the vice president under him, was a guest. In his diary, Hayes described the cuisine as “[p]lain but good.” Oysters on toast was served after the tomato soup and after whitefish, but before “(4) roast beef, chickens, and vegetables with coffee, (5) blanc-mange by Adda Cook—excellent, (6) fruit, (7) cigars—and a chat for an hour and a half.”
From 1832 comes a recipe for oyster stew, combining that dish (as it would not be today) with toast. Eliza Leslie, in “Seventy-Five Recipes for Pastries, Cakes, and Sweetmeats,” recommended:
“Open the oysters and strain the liquor. Pat to the liquor some grated stale bread, and a little pepper and nutmeg, adding a glass of white wine. Boil the liquor with these ingredients, and then pour it scalding hot over the dish of raw oysters. This will cook them sufficiently.
“Have ready some slices of buttered toast with the crust cut off. When the oysters are done, dip the toast in the liquor, and lay the pieces round the sides and in the bottom of a deep dish. Pour the oysters and liquor upon the toast, and send them to the table hot.”
Early recipes were generally far blander than those of today. Though the soggy toast which this recipe entails would probably not be appetizing to most persons today, milk toast was then in vogue, as it continued to be into the first half of the last century. Indeed, a recipe in Fannie Farmer’s 1896 “Boston Cooking-School Cookbook” casts the dish in terms of oysters on milk toast, instructing:
“Serve Broiled Oysters on small pieces of Milk Toast. Sprinkle with finely chopped celery.”
From “Mrs. Lincoln’s Boston Cook Book” (1884) comes a recipe for creamed oysters on toast:
“Make one cup of thick cream sauce, and season with salt, pepper, cayenne, and celery salt.
“Wash and pick over one pint of oysters, and parboil until plump.
“Skim carefully; drain and add them to the sauce.
“Serve on toast, and garnish the dish with points of toast; or the toast may be omitted, and bread crumbs browned in butter sprinkled over the oysters.”
“Pig in a blanket” was the name of a junk food I procured for years from a First Street food stand across from the Los Angeles City Hall called the Kosher Burrito (now out of business, but reportedly slated to be resurrected when the new CalTrans Building opens). The dish was a hot dog wrapped in a flour tortilla, with chili and onions inside.
“Pig in a blanket” is, I’ve learned, a term commonly lent a frankfurter baked in a crescent roll. It’s also used to describe various other dishes, including ground meat with a cabbage wrapping.
However, the most long-standing use for the term is one harking back to the 19th Century: a description of an oyster wrapped in bacon, an hors d’ouevre served on toast.
If you stop to think about it, the dish ought to be called an “oyster in a pig blanket” since it is the wrapping, or blanket, that’s comprised of pig meat; the oyster can hardly be likened to a pig.
“Miss Parola’s New Cookbook,” published in 1882, included this recipe for “Little Pigs in Blankets”:
“Season large oysters with salt and pepper. Cut fat English bacon in very thin slices, wrap an oyster in each slice, and fasten with a little wooden skewer (toothpicks are the best things). Heat a frying-pan and put in the ‘little pigs.’ Cook just long enough to crisp the bacon—about two minutes. Place on slices of toast that have been cut into small pieces, and serve immediately….This is a nice relish for lunch or tea….”
A similar recipe for “Pigs in Blankets” appeared in Mrs. Lincoln’s “Boston Cook Book.” It gave the alternative name of “Huîtres au Lit,” literally translated, “oysters with the bed.”
“Angels on Horseback” is a dish described in the online “Cook’s Encyclopedia” as an hors d’oeuvre “of bacon-wrapped, shucked oysters that are broiled, baked or grilled and served on buttered toast points.”
Yes, that’s the very dish just discussed sub nom “pigs in a blanket.”
Both terms are used today, generally without an awareness in using one of the moinikers of this 19th Century dish that the other exits. Variations on the recipes for each of these once-indistinguishable appretizers have resulted in separate listings of them in some cookbooks.
There will be more about “angels on horseback” next week.
Copyright 2004, Metropolitan News Company
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