Bar Rooms and Bivalves
Oysters. There is a cave in South Africa with oyster shell remains, indicating their culinary presence dating back as far as 164,000 years! There are mounds (middens) of shellfish shells in Florida, that date back 600 to 2,500 years and one that covers 25 acres and is 25 feet deep. Don’t take my word for it, go to Professor Google and ask for ScientificAmerican.com
In the Johnny-come-lately arena, American history informs us that the first oysters sold to the public were at a “primitive saloon” in New York City in 1763; and, in a call just today to Antoine’s Restaurant, after asking if oysters were on “their original menu”, I was told “Yes” (Antoine’s opened 176 years ago). As New Orleans mayor Robert Maestri asked of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt in Antoine’s dining room in 1937: “How ya like dem ersters?”
Ersters, Oystas; and I hope that we’ve established some oyster cred, and, not satisfied with leaving well enough alone, let me throw one more quote at you: “Oyster eaters come in two forms: Rabid Oyster Lovers or those that consider them tasting like salty sea snot!” (Julia Robertson). I am in the first camp, I have been known to put down four, five, six dozen at local bars back in the day, depending on the price of course; my fondest memory is that of a joint in the Irish Channel that would have Tuesday Oyster Night at a dime per, I don’t recall the name of the bar, but I sure can bring back that sensual satiation sensation of having eaten my fill of those delicious morsels that I equated to the feeling of feasting on French kisses. Call me weird.
I have eaten oysters in every form that I’ve come across in every place that I’ve found them, from huge honkers at a roadside stand in the Yucatan to those cute Olympia oysters by the shores of South Puget Sound. Belons, Kumamotos, Apalachicolas, Chesapeakes, Blue Points, Wellfleets, Malpaques, Hamma-hammas, Quilcenes and Penn Coves, in my lines of employment I’ve purchased them all wholesale and devoured them with abandon.
My favorite is our locals, which are called Louisiana Gulf Oysters, harvested from over thirty different locations just south of New Orleans; to my taste, they are sweet, mild, delicious and very consumer friendly. My earliest recollection of eating them in New Orleans is at the Acme Oyster House in 1967. There I learned to eat them not with an off the cuff cocktail sauce or even that concoction called a ‘mignonette’ but the way the local Italians relished them. On the bar with all the other accruements were cruets of olive oil and this is how we did it. First you unwrap your crackers as you watch your oysters being shucked (never eat pre-shucked oysters raw, it’s totally bad form) and handed over to you. Next, you squeeze lemon over the whole plateful and watch them squirm, then some dashes of olive oil, some horseradish and a squirt or two of Tabasco on each one individually. Then, using your oyster fork to make sure that the little gem is free of the shell, pick the half shell up and slide the oyster into your mouth followed by its natural juices and the wonderful personal sauce that you’ve created and chew. Crackers figure in there somewhere and of course, beer, glorious beer. In those days there was no line to get in, they only had one location and the family ran the business.
Fast forward to the twenty-first century. We’re now concerned with the safety of eating bivalves, all menus come with a warning, all chefs keep accurate records of who, what and when the oysters were purchased. Bars no longer can have raw oyster pop-ups (although Pirogue’s at 2565 Bayou Road does a bang up grilled oyster pop-up curbside on Friday nights) unless they can pass a Health Department inspection. You get plenty of offerings from places that are legitimate oyster bars at astoundingly low prices at what they call “Oyster Hours” ranging from free until they run out to a buck or less each, but Uncle Vinnie who just got a sack off the boat and brings them to Bruno’s Bar and ‘shucks ‘em for you hisself’ is a thing of the past. Elsa Hahne did remarkable coverage of our raw oyster cult as the Food Editor of Off Beat magazine in the September 2016 issue and lists a dozen places to get a dozen shucks for less than a dozen bucks. (If you don’t regularly get it, read and save Off Beat--Jan Ramsey and staff have been keeping the New Orleans music and food culture alive and well informed since 1988.)
Enter now my latest oyster hope for our great city; Becky Wasden and Stafani Sell, the bringers of bliss in the form of bodacious bivalves, performing as Two Girls - One Shuck traveling oyster caterers, modern day goddesses of the “raw, dirty, salty, sweet” critters. They cite Tracey’s Irish Pub, Frankie and Johnnie’s for raw ones, as well as their Buck-a-Shuck appearances at Bayou Wine Garden on Saint’s game nights and some Happy Hours (call for info); Becky tells me that Bud Rips in the Bywater is trying to resurrect their old oyster bar as well.
So, there I was at a wedding of high regard, esteem and warm feelings where the topic of discussion is not how wonderfully radiant the bride looks (and indeed, she did) or how handsome the groom was (ditto) or the loving family support and cute youngsters and wise elders that attended; no, the buzz was all about the food. The food at this function was good and grand enough that I would have danced like Fred Astaire for an invite, luckily I didn’t have to, for Girlfriend and the bride go way back. And then someone says to me: “did you check out the oyster bar?” Well, my stomach’s sensory anticipation perked up like a Labrador in a duck blind and my natural half shell radar found my way to a corner where indeed two charmers were ‘Lady shuckin’ and jive talkin’ to a small gaggle of admirers, all the while dishing up icy cold half shells: love at first bivalve! I was like an illicit lover who swoops in takes a taste, then artfully dodges away only to come back for seconds and third helpings. I’m sure that they thought that I was stalking them, but I swear, all I wanted was their oysters (unfortunately they didn’t have any olive oil).
So now in my ‘when I hit the lottery’ daydreams, I must include a huge and everlasting party with Two Girls-One Shuck center stage (you really should check them out: FB, Instagram, website, follow, call, whistle, book and be happy).
We’re in the months with an ‘R’ in them, what most old timers consider oyster season; it’s the perfect time for me to partake in my passion, and although some folks would say that you can eat oysters all year round--and I agree-- I’m a traditionalist, so I don’t. I mean, doesn’t Casamento’s Restaurant (since 1919) closing during hot summer months tell you to wait until it’s really the season? It tells me.