Flavor on the Half Shell

Regional tastes distinguish America's favorite bivalve.
By David George Gordon

North America's First People loved oysters. Huge middens, or mounds, of sun-bleached shells at long-abandoned Indian village sites on both ocean coasts substantiate that fact. But unlike inhabitants of modern oyster bars, the early epicures seldom ate their shellfish raw; rather, they smoked or steamed the succulent meats before serving them at festive gatherings.

Later seaside dwellers devised more elaborate methods for preparing the delicacies. One English recipe, circa 1390, instructs, "Shell oysters and simmer them in wine and their own broth, strain the broth through a cloth, take blanched almonds, grind them and mix with the same broth and anoint with flour of rice and put the oysters therein, and cast in powder of ginger, sugar, and mace."

The oyster has found a sweet niche in an array of regional cuisines. On the Gulf Coast, for instance, French colonial influences inspired the creation of oyster casseroles and pan roasts, now fancified fare at top New Orleans restaurants. On the Eastern Seaboard, less elaborate but no less savory dishes reflect elegant standards of New England gentry as well as the informality of fish-and-chips stands.

Even the Midwest succumbed to the oyster's appeal. It's said that during Lincoln's presidential campaign, the lanky Illinois statesman entertained friends and associates with a series of buffets at which guests had their choice of oysters or oysters, prepared in every imaginable way.

In the Northwest, Pacific Rim trade has given rise to a number of innovative oyster meals. Diners in that part of the country clamor for savory Asian oyster saut├ęs and stir-fries. Several recipes have been developed by hardworking shuckers, many of them recent immigrants from Vietnam, Thailand, or the Philippines.

Despite the trend toward more sophisticated cooking techniques, there remains a strong predisposition for the simplest of oyster dishes: the invertebrate unadorned, on the half shell. Patrons of today's well-stocked raw bars may choose from more than a dozen oyster varieties, including plump Wellfleets from Cape Cod, flavorful Hama Hamas from Washington state, and succulent Malpeques from Prince Edward Island.

Knowledge of oysters and their cultural sources has become a status symbol, akin to an understanding of fine cognacs or Cuban cigars. With so many tantalizing ways to enjoy the beloved bivalve, it's an education everyone can enjoy.