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Retro Baltimore

Retro Baltimore: The Maryland oyster roast is winter’s gluttony

It’s often said that people going to a Maryland oyster roast stop eating the day before. They want to secure the proper appetite for what awaits them.

The event is often staged in a religious or fraternal organization’s basement, school, or social or fire hall. Cold weather months are the high season for Baltimore’s big oyster spreads, when the fruits of the Chesapeake Bay draw the famished to tables and uncomfortable folding chairs. No one ever complains about getting a bad seat.

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The term oyster roast is something of a misnomer. Roasting is the only method not generally employed. Oysters are served shucked (fresh out the shell), stewed in butter and milk or cream, fried, or dipped in a pancake-like batter and deep fried as fritters.

OK, so not everyone had a palate for gulping five dozen raw oysters. These gastronomical orgies typically are accompanied by the mandatory bull roast — the local version of pit beef, steamed shrimp, fresh (uncured) hams, sauerkraut with pigs knuckles, potato salad, coleslaw, hot dogs, cold cuts and baked beans. Pitchers of beer disappear as soon as they are carried to a table.

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The seasoning? Bright red cocktail sauce, heavy on the horseradish, for the oysters. The pit beef is topped with straight horseradish (it has to be very fresh) or perhaps mixed with sour cream or mayonnaise. There is a big pile of sliced raw onions.

The social component of the Maryland oyster roast is essential. You don’t just buy a ticket and walk in off the street. There is a belonging factor. Members of fraternal organizations, political organizations, religious groups, and Rotary and Lions clubs are the backbones of these events. Members sell tickets and get tables together of friends and relatives.

Those attending do not change much from year to year. These events are made to order for people who have moved away from the old neighborhood but will return, once a year, to renew friendships and catch up on 12 months’ gossip.

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“Any politician running for reelection or any incumbent wishing to keep a seat had better show up at the local oyster roast,” said a 1996 article in The Baltimore Sun. “Better yet, buy a table of tickets. And best, do both of the above and then place a full-page ad in the oyster-roast program (a revenue-raiser). To show to all on hand that he or she has a good appetite for down-home food, the candidate should gorge on everything in sight.”

Oyster roasts were once a tradition in Maryland politics. The fall events were staged the Sunday before the general election and candidates ran from roast to roast as they worked to secure votes.

“Here [at the roast] new acquaintances are made by the candidates, old acquaintances renewed, promises and alliances made and broken, and almost incidentally, a few dozen oysters eaten,” a 1946 Sun article reported.

There is an informal oyster roast calendar. The first months of the year are the peak for these events. Oysters are traditionally a cold weather dish. There is nothing better to overcome the lethargy of a dull January afternoon than descending the church-basement steps and being hit by the heat and clatter of a roomful of seafood-starved people.

Charity roasts also include spinning game wheels and other devices of chance. Look, it’s all for a good cause.

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But gaming tables are not the only form of entertainment at these get-togethers. Live bands, and more likely disc jockeys, lure mothers and sons, grandmothers and granddaughters together onto a battered dance floor.

As the afternoon winds down the oyster eaters finally have had enough and drift out of the armory or hall. Their thoughts migrate to a different place, home on a soft recliner.


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