by Paula Marcoux
I once cooked at an inn on Cumberland Island, Georgia, where every winter Saturday was marked with an early evening oyster roast. Under the broad porch of the big house, an old brick barbeque blazed with gnarly live oak chunks. A bumpy sheet of expanded metal sagged across the coals, supporting hundreds of Apalachicola or Cumberland Island oysters. Cocktails flowed and staff helped guests to oysters cooked just how they liked them, from barely warmed, to steamed plump, to chewy saline jerky.
My southeastern Massachusetts upbringing had accustomed me to consuming these bivalves raw and chilly, so I was prepared, in my snotty Yankee way, to take a high-handed view of such treatment. Turns out my prejudice was wrong again, probably because I couldn’t resist the introduction of fire to the slow collaborative celebratory shellfish-eating process I already loved. It was seductive — oysters are a huge treat in which we tend to indulge most in winter, so why not take the chill off? Outdoors in your fire pit or charcoal grill or indoors in the fireplace, an oyster roast is great fun for a few or for a party. Little preparation, little pressure, every oyster cooked to the taste of the diner.
Recipe adapted from Cooking with Fire © Paula Marcoux.
Photography by © Keller & Keller. Used with permission of Storey Publishing.
After many years of wondering why Yankees don’t put on oyster roasts like Georgians, I was mighty gratified to discover that the query should be qualified with an “any more.” Seems this vernacular home-entertainment used to be part of the culinary life of this region, at least until the end of the nineteenth century. According to a chatty letter I recently came across in the archives at Pilgrim Hall, Plymouthean Mary Russell Watson served unexpected guests an impromptu late-winter supper composed of oysters, broiled on a gridiron over a bed of coals in the fireplace of her chamber.
“I thought of the oysters in shells down cellar,” Mrs. Watson wrote to her daughter, revealing a mental process familiar to any hostess who has ever ransacked her fridge with her brain when friends stop in without warning. But, ah, how many of us these days keep a barrel of oysters in the basement for such an eventuality? Back in pre-refrigeration (and pre-Vibrio) days, a cellar that stayed just above freezing for the winter clearly provided a reasonable storage option. Not many of us have that luxury today, so I asked Seth Garfield of Cuttyhunk Shellfish Farms, Inc. (cuttyhunkshellfish.com), for some tips for safe keeping for these special mollusks, so that we too can be prepared to entertain in style.
- Start with freshly-harvested local oysters — always inquire as to origin before buying.
- Scrub the shells before storage.
- Stack them flat in porous containers, never airtight.
- Store up to 2 weeks at 34 – 41 degrees F.
Paula Marcoux is a Plymouth-based food historian and the author of Cooking with Fire. She writes for popular and academic audiences; consults with museums, film producers, and publishers; and gives workshops on natural leavening, historic baking, and wood-fired cooking.