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Cooking (and Contemplating) New England

"Escaloped Oysters," from Lydia Maria Child's "American Frugal Housewife" (1833)

Escaloped and Elegant, in 1833 or 2015


Oys . . . Oys . . . Oysters!
In a couple of our previous posts—about Hannah Woolley's "To rost a Capon" and Hannah Glasse's "Cod Chowder"—oysters appear in supporting roles. It's high time to put them in the spotlight. Among all the shellfish enjoyed today, oysters alone have a history of continuous popularity and prestige that stretches back to Roman times. In the ancient world, in medieval Europe, in colonial and nineteenth century America, oysters were beloved by people in all walks of life. "Oys . . . Oys . . . Oysters!" is close to the cry used by oyster peddlers in the streets of Boston in the 1830s. Around the same time, America's first freestanding restaurants, not affiliated with inns or hotels, emerged, and these were almost all establishments that specialized in oysters. Some catered mainly to working people who stood at wooden bars at lunchtime, knocking back their oysters. Others were outfitted with booths and tables to appeal to a more well-heeled clientele.The word that Child uses to denote how the oysters should be cooked—"escaloped"— has long been a troublemaker. Nowadays, it's used both to describe a mode of preparation, as in scalloped potatoes, and a type of seafood, scallops. The French word from which it's derived meant both a shell and a slice of meat, so that the English used to have both "scollop'd" shellfish dishes and meat dishes called "collops." Before the early twentieth century, oysters were the go-to shellfish, so scolloped oysters were cooked with buttered bread crumbs in shells or shell-shaped dishes. This is what Child means by "Escaloped Oysters," although, always frugal, she doesn't insist on the shell-shaped dishes. Her recipe brought this seafood tradition to the United States, where it flourished throughout the nineteenth century. For decades, hardly a New England cookbook appeared that did not have in it a recipe for "scalloped" (or "scolloped" or "escalloped") oysters.

The Ingredients
4 servings

3 baguettes (about 26 oz. of bread)
36 fresh oysters
4 tablespoons butter
¼ teaspoon mace
freshly-ground black pepper

How We Made It
We preheated the oven to 300° F. We cut the baguettes into one-inch pieces, spread the pieces on a foil-lined baking sheet, put them into the 300° F oven for 25 minutes to toast lightly, then with a food processor broke them up into coarse breadcrumbs.

 

We reset the oven temperature to 450° F. Now for the oysters. Because the liquor inside each oyster shell is almost as important to this dish as the oyster itself, and because we are not expert at opening raw oysters, we needed to open the shells using an alternative method to shucking with an oyster knife. We placed them, 9 at a time, in a 12-inch skillet in ½ inch of water, set the burner at medium low, and heated them for 2 to 3 minutes, at which point they opened.


The next steps had to be taken with great care so as not to spill the liquor. First we ever-so-slowly and steadily transferred the opened oysters onto a plate. Then we took them one at a time and drained the liquor into a bowl. We poured the water from the 12-inch skillet into another bowl. We do have an oyster knife, as seen in the above picture, and we next used it to cut each oyster away from its bottom shell.

 


With our oysters set aside and ready to be "escaloped," we now needed to strain both the oyster liquor and the water from the 12-inch skillet. This we did by covering two additional bowls with cheesecloth, then pouring the liquor into one of the cheesecloth-covered bowls and the skillet water into the other one. We coated the bottom and sides of a 6-x-9-inch baking dish with butter, then with a layer of the breadcrumbs.

 


We rinsed half the oysters by dipping them one at a time in the strained stewing water. After each one was rinsed, we placed it in the baking dish atop the base layer of breadcrumbs, then dotted the bed of oysters with pats of butter and seasoned it with a light dusting of mace and some freshly ground black pepper (two or three twists of our peppermill).

 

We placed a second layer of breadcrumbs over the first layer of oysters and repeated the above steps with the rest of the oysters, so that there were now two layers of breadcrumbs and two layers of rinsed, buttered, and seasoned oysters in our baking dish.


We covered the top layer of oysters with another layer of breadcrumbs, then poured the reserved oyster liquor into the baking dish. Now our "Escaloped Oysters" were ready to go into the 450° F oven, where we baked them, uncovered, for eight minutes, served them up with some boiled potatoes and salad greens, and thoroughly enjoyed them!


The original recipe, with commentary, can be found in Northern Hospitality, p. 156.

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