WHEN I AM feeling the need for more zip in my engine, more purpose in my walk, more fire in my furnace, I eat oysters.
I seem to find myself in a low-energy condition during February, a month for mopers. It is the darkest, dullest month of the year. Yet, it is an "r" month -- a month with the letter "r" in its name -- and that means it is prime time for oysters.
Over the years, I have heard many explanations why, thanks to refrigeration, you can eat oysters every month of the year. I don't heed such talk. I never have a hankering for oysters during the months from May through August -- months that have no letter "r."
But in September, a rumble starts coming from my stomach. It gets louder in October and by mid- November, it can only be quieted by a happy infusion of raw oysters.
I revel in every aspect of the raw-oyster experience -- the aroma of a fresh oyster, the silky texture of the meat, and the salty and sometimes faintly metallic flavors of the oyster. The first raw oysters are like the first sea breeze of the beach season. It fills you with pleasant memories and with rich expectations of good times to come.
Usually, I feast on raw oysters until after the Christmas holidays. Then, for reasons that only my biological clockmaker knows, my appetite switches to cooked oysters.
When the gloom of January starts to get to me, I'll roll a dozen shucked oysters in cracker meal, then in a mixture of milk and eggs, and fry them for a few fragrant, crackling minutes in a skillet filled with peanut oil. After such a supper, tomorrow promises to be a brighter day.
During "r" months, I also visit Maison Marconi, a venerable downtown restaurant that seems to challenge the Maryland oyster for the claim of who has been on the Baltimore scene longer. I was saddened to learn that chef Tony Sartori had retired. His oysters Pauline -- oysters stuffed with lobster meat and topped with Parmesan cheese -- had brightened many a winter's day for me. But a recent lunch of sauteed oysters showed me that Sartori's handpicked successor, Keith Watson, had inherited the master's deft touch with mollusks.
The Marconi lunch lifted my spirits for several days. Later, however, the gray winter days got me down again.
This time, I turned to a vintage cookbook, "Eat, Drink & Be Merry in Maryland" by Frederick Philip Stieff, for oyster relief. The cookbook, first published in 1932, was reissued by Johns Hopkins University Press in 1998.
Paging through the paperback, I came across a recipe for "Baked Oysters Lafayette" that hailed from the Southern Hotel, a once glorious, but now defunct, Baltimore establishment.
The recipe called for covering raw oysters with a homemade cocktail sauce, topping them with bacon, bread crumbs and butter, then baking them until the oysters start to bubble. Just reading the recipe made me feel good. Eating the oysters restored fire to my furnace.
Baked Oysters Lafayette
THE OYSTERS: 12 oysters, freshly opened in their deep shells
6 slices of bacon, cut in half
1 tablespoon horseradish
1/2 teaspoon Tabasco sauce
1 tablespoon vinegar
1 tablespoon Worcestershire sauce
2 tablespoons lemon juice
1 tablespoon ketchup
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 shallot, chopped
Mix sauce ingredients thoroughly and refrigerate for an hour before serving. Makes enough sauce for 24 oysters
Cover each raw oyster with cocktail sauce and save any leftover sauce. Garnish the top of each oyster with a piece of bacon. Sprinkle each oyster with bread crumbs. Add a small piece of butter to each oyster and bake in hot oven (400 degrees) a few minutes until oysters begin to bubble.
-- From "Eat, Drink & Be Merry in Maryland"
Pub Date: 02/24/99