The Food Almanac: Wednesday, February 6, 2013

It's National Raw Oyster Day!


In The Food Almanac, Tom Fitzmorris of the online newsletter The New Orleans Menu notes food facts and sayings.

Days Until. . . 
Mardi Gras--6
Valentine's Day--8

Today's Flavor
This is National Raw Oyster Day. It's the shank of the oyster season right now along the Gulf Coast, with water temperatures cool enough to make the oysters pump a lot of water through their bodies to filter out nutrients. This makes them fat, with big meaty "eyes," (the adductor muscles) and more complex, briny flavors. Assuming you have no health problems that would prevent you from doing so, you should have a dozen or two today and see how good oysters can be. I think they're the finest seafood we produce in our part of the world, and by far the best buy.

All that is true despite the damage done to the Louisiana oil beds indirectly because of the BP oil spill. Few beds of any size were touched by the oil, but fresh water sent from the river through the bays where oysters grow killed them. It was estimated that it would take three years to return to full production. It's still much lower than before the spill, but you can once again get Louisiana oysters everywhere you once did. At higher prices, however. 

The oysters we enjoy in New Orleans are all of the species crassostrea virginica. These are also the oysters of the entire Atlantic Coast, including those of the Chesapeake Bay and the formerly rich oyster beds of New York City. But there are many other species, although they only occasionally appear in this market. Reason: the quality and low cost of the local oysters, which are as fine a blessing as a habitat ever bestowed on its interlopers.

Edible Dictionary
oyster stew, n.--Although the term sounds so generic that it admits of a wide range of possible dishes, an oyster stew is most likely to be a simple soup made with milk, butter, and green onions. Plus, of course, oysters. A particularly good oyster stew recipe will begin by reducing oyster water ("oyster liquor," the seawater that drains out of the shell when an oyster is opened) by half or more. The butter and milk (sometimes cream or half-and-half) go in next. The oysters enter the pot last, and simmered just long enough to heat them through. Still-crunchy green onions go in last, as garnish. Long a specialty at West End Park's restaurants, with their destruction by Katrina oyster stew in the old style has become a rarity.

Gourmet Gazetteer
Two rural spots, both in Mississippi, bear the name Shucktown. Both are so far inland that there's little likelihood that oyster shucking is an industry in either place. The easternmost Shucktown is in a rural area, but a fair number of people have nice-size spreads there. It's sixteen miles north of Meridian, near a couple of reservoirs where you may well catch fish. But not oysters. You can get a bite to eat at the Okatibbee Creek Fish Camp, three miles north. The other Shucktown a mostly wooded crossroads sixty-seven miles south of Jackson, the state capital. It's also five miles west of Brookhaven, where you can catch the train they call the City of New Orleans for a ride to Memphis, Chicago, and (f course) New Orleans any day of the week. The most obvious restaurant nearby is the Cracker Barrel, but for real local color and food go to The General Store and Diner in Brookhaven.

Deft Dining Rule #670:
No recipe for cooking oysters will ever equal the goodness of the same oysters, freshly shucked, eaten raw.

The Old Kitchen Sage Sez:
The best way to shuck oysters is to find somebody who really knows how and get him to do it for you in exchange for beer.

Food Games
Today in 1935, the board game Monopoly was sold for the first time. Now you can find custom versions of the game for many cities and special interests. But I don't think I've seen one with restaurants as the theme. Let's see. . . in New Orleans, the inexpensive properties just past GO would be Domilese's and Dong Phuong. Around the first turn you'd have the opportunity to buy Mandina's and Liuzza's. Just past Free Parking you'd have Mr. B's and Clancy's and Brigtsen's. The green properties would be Galatoire's, Arnaud's, and Antoine's. But which would be the ones where Boardwalk and Park Place? August? Stella? Commander's Palace?

Annals Of Bottled Water
Today in 1985, Perrier rolled out the first of its flavored bubbly waters. It was the first time the French company bottled anything but its famous spring water. They recently added Pink Grapefruit to Lemon, Line, and Citron (the latter, conceived in a flash of creative brilliance, is lemon and lime together).

Annals Of Food Writing
This is the birthday of Michael Pollan, the author of The Omnivore's Dilemma, a great book about the food we eat, where it comes from, and how growing it the way we do is creating enormous problems. It's a book well worth reading, one full of surprising facts.

Mardi Gras 1951
Today is the sixty-second anniversary of the last time Mardi Gras fell on this date. Reason I know: I was born that day. Carnival will not fall on my birthday until 2035. It is my goal to live that long. I share my birthdate with Ronald Reagan, Aaron Burr, Babe Ruth, Tom Brokaw, Zsa Zsa Gabor, and my late radio colleague Bill Calder.

Also born today (in 1914) wasThurl Ravenscroft, born today in 1914. A voice actor with the deepest imaginable bass, he was in thousands of productions, the most famous of which was the voice of Tony the Tiger saying, about Sugar Frosted Flakes, "They're great!" He was a good singer, too, easily able to hit a low C without sounding unnatural. You're A Mean One, Mr. Grinch was his best-known song.

Back Of The Butcher Shop
Today in 1865, a banquet at the Grand Hotel in Paris featured horsemeat in almost every course. Horsemeat soup, sausages, ragout, and steak were served, among many other dishes. Horsemeat goes in and out of popularity in Europe. During the mad cow scare of a decade ago, it had a brief renaissance. Eating horsemeat has not caught in in the United States. I have never seen it on a menu or in a store, even though I have encountered just about every other edible mammal. Not even T. Pittari's ever offered it.

The Saints
It's the feast day of St. Amand of France, a monk of the seventh century. He is the patron saint of bartenders, brewers, and winemakers. He's also a patron saint of the Boy Scouts, strangely enough.

Food Namesakes
Ebenezer Brewer, the writer of The Dictionary of Phrase and Fable,was born today in 1897. . . Film music composer and conductor Maurice Le Roux was born in 1923 on this date. . . Sir Charles Wheatstone, a British physicist who invented a device for measuring electrical resistance, was born today in 1802. . . Eric Partridge, who wrote about the English language as used in New Zealand, was born today in 1894.

Words To Eat By
"As I ate the oysters with their strong taste of the sea and their faint metallic taste that the cold white wine washed away, leaving only the sea taste and the succulent texture, and as I drank their cold liquid from each shell and washed it down with the crisp taste of the wine, I lost the empty feeling and began to be happy, and to make plans."--Ernest Hemingway.


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