Regional tastes distinguish America's favorite bivalve.

By David George Gordon
September 08, 2003
Howard L. Puckett

North America's First People loved oysters. Huge middens, ormounds, of sun-bleached shells at long-abandoned Indian villagesites on both ocean coasts substantiate that fact. But unlikeinhabitants of modern oyster bars, the early epicures seldom atetheir shellfish raw; rather, they smoked or steamed the succulentmeats before serving them at festive gatherings.

Later seaside dwellers devised more elaborate methods forpreparing the delicacies. One English recipe, circa 1390,instructs, "Shell oysters and simmer them in wine and their ownbroth, strain the broth through a cloth, take blanched almonds,grind them and mix with the same broth and anoint with flour ofrice 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 regionalcuisines. On the Gulf Coast, for instance, French colonialinfluences inspired the creation of oyster casseroles and panroasts, now fancified fare at top New Orleans restaurants. On theEastern Seaboard, less elaborate but no less savory dishes reflectelegant standards of New England gentry as well as the informalityof fish-and-chips stands.

Even the Midwest succumbed to the oyster's appeal. It's saidthat during Lincoln's presidential campaign, the lanky Illinoisstatesman entertained friends and associates with a series ofbuffets 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 numberof innovative oyster meals. Diners in that part of the countryclamor for savory Asian oyster sautés and stir-fries. Severalrecipes have been developed by hardworking shuckers, many of themrecent immigrants from Vietnam, Thailand, or the Philippines.

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

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