There's good news and bad news for oyster fans this year. The bad news: The harvest, sadly, is shaping up as the worst in state history. The good news? Marylanders can still find their beloved Chesapeake Bay aursters on the menu and at the market - if they hunt hard for them.
The best pickings, not surprisingly, are probably on the Eastern Shore, where local landmarks like Harris Crab House on Kent Island and Harrison's Chesapeake House on Tilghman Island - both known for their over-the-top Friday night oyster buffets - are getting their oysters right off the boat.
"You have to have oysters that are fresh. That means a lot. Ours come from the Choptank River just half a mile from our establishment," says restaurant owner Buddy Harrison, whose grandparents opened Chesapeake House in 1899. "There's nothing better than a Maryland oyster. There's just no comparison."
Marylanders have had a thing for oysters for generations. After all, this is a state that has had oyster police, oyster wars, even an oyster navy. As Whitey Schmidt, author of the recently published The Chesapeake Bay Oyster Cookbook (Marian Hartnett Press, 2003, $29.95), puts it: "Here in Chesapeake country, the oyster is not so much a menu item as it is a legitimate subculture all its own. Bivalves are in our blood."
So what makes Chesapeake Bay oysters such standouts? Well, they're puffy, meaty, just a little bit salty and they have a smooth aftertaste. By comparison, says Harrison, "You try those West Coast and Gulf Coast oysters and it's bite and chew, bite and chew. Those oysters, it's like eating beef."
The oyster season starts in September and ends in April - all the months that have an R. This time of year, the Chesapeake region's chefs are giving oysters full play on their menus.
At the Kennedyville Inn, which bills itself as "centrally located in the middle of nowhere" just north of Chestertown, chef Kevin McKinney is known locally for his oyster fritters, a surprise every time you eat one because he varies the ingredients.
"I've gotten to the point that when the season comes around, I don't even pull the recipe anymore," says McKinney, who has been fooling with the fritter for 15 years. "I'll use spinach or corn or what I feel goes with the good taste of the oyster. We did it with celery leaves for a little while. Now, I'm doing one with scallions and spring onions." The real key to this fritter's success, according to McKinney, is the lemon-butter sauce that goes with it.
On the middle shore at the popular Suicide Bridge Restaurant in Secretary, diners will find oysters from the lower Chesapeake Bay in dishes like the combination plate, just $15. It includes oysters on the half shell with barbecue sauce; steamed oysters; fried oysters; oyster stew; and oysters casino, which are topped with herbs, butter, cheese and bacon and served on the half shell. "This is local tradition," says Bill Tyndall, a manager of the waterfront restaurant. "It's something everybody looks forward to."
There is perhaps no better introduction to the Chesapeake Bay oyster than the buffet. One Friday night recently, Breck Stringer, a watercolorist from Lewes, Del., showed up at 5 o'clock sharp to sample the buffet at Harrison's Chesapeake House. His visit is a dining excursion Stringer makes religiously three times every oyster season.
The oysters, shucked a few doors away on Thursdays and Fridays, are served nine ways - raw on the half shell; in a fritter; on the half shell with crab, bacon and white sauce; in a stew; in a stuffing; and scalloped, sauted, fried and "creoled."
"We're Chesapeake Bay people. Some of the best oysters in the world are right here," says Stringer, who likes them raw best. Even so, he ate only 18 the other night, down from his usual two dozen. ("I was a little off my feed," he said later. "I wanted to try everything else.")
Stringer has his own way of enjoying oysters on the half shell. "Just squeeze on a little bit a lemon, a dab of cocktail sauce, then slosh it around," he says. "And swallow it." With oysters, it seems, there is an eating style. Schmidt, whose cookbook has 210 recipes tested at his kitchen in Crisfield, prefers this method for enjoying the raw oyster: "First, they got to be ice-cold. I don't mind hitting it with a dash of Tabasco and half a squeeze of lemon. Then you slurp, and that doesn't mean just opening the throat and letting it go down, oh no. You've got to chomp it twice. That releases all the salt and the oyster liquor."
As for cooking oysters, even the professionals admit it's a challenge. "They're easily overcooked. It takes a little extra something to handle them and get them just right," according to McKinney. "They're delicate to handle, and, overcooked, they just shrivel up into oyster bullets."
Nowadays, oyster fans are less concerned about cooking their oysters than they are about acquiring them in the first place. Not long ago, Schmidt ordered a couple of quarts of oysters from a local concern and asked where they were from. The answer: Texas. "We're still getting some locally, it's not wiped out yet," says Schmidt. "But it's not the way it was."
At the peak of the state's oyster harvest in 1885, 15 million bushels of oysters were harvested out of the bay, according to the Maryland Department of Natural Resources. Today, the state is anticipating a 2003-2004 harvest of 15,000 bushels, down from last season's record low of 53,000 bushels - a consequence, mostly, of high disease levels.
As a result, even on the Shore, seafood lovers are being forced to get their fix from Gulf Coast oysters. Not everyone is happy. At E&E; Seafood in Chestertown, owner Jerry Creighton can't get bay oysters because he is such a small buyer. He's now stocking oysters from Texas.
"Some of our customers don't like them as well. Some, it wouldn't make any difference if each one had a pearl in it; some people just don't like change, and they want to stay with local stuff," says Creighton, a former waterman. "Problem is there's just not enough local oysters to go around."
Some tips for buying oysters
Oyster guru Whitey Schmidt, author of The Chesapeake Bay Oyster Cookbook, offers these tips for buying oysters:
To confirm an oyster's freshness, give the shell a tap. A truly fresh one will close its shell up tight.
When buying fresh shucked oysters by the pint or quart, look for clear - not cloudy - liquid surrounding the oysters. One pint equals six servings.
The color of oysters may vary depending on what they have eaten or because of a rapid change in temperature. A freshly shucked oyster could be gray, creamy, brownish, pale yellow, red, green or a combination of those colors. They are safe to eat regardless of color.
Live oysters in the shell last seven to 10 days on ice or in the refrigerator. Refrigerate shucked oysters up to a week.
Oysters on the Half Shell
12 oysters in shells
5 cups crushed ice
freshly cracked black pepper, to taste
wine vinegar, splash
1 cup chili sauce
2 tablespoons prepared horseradish
2 tablespoons lemon juice
2 tablespoons finely chopped celery
Scrub oyster shells under cold running water. Just before serving, shuck them and strain the liquor that spills from each shell into a clean bowl. Arrange oysters in their deep shells on a bed of ice and pour the strained liquor over them. Serve with a wedge of lemon, a bit of cracked pepper and a splash of vinegar or cocktail sauce. To make cocktail sauce: Mix all ingredients. Chill if not using immediately.
Per serving (with sauce): 209 calories; 6 grams protein; 2 grams fat; 1 gram saturated fat; 39 grams carbohydrate; 45 milligrams cholesterol; 1,710 milligrams sodium
- "The Chesapeake Bay Oyster Cookbook" by Whitey Schmidt (Marian Hartnett Press, 2003, $29.95)
2 cups all-purpose flour
1 tablespoon double-acting baking powder
heaping tablespoon salt and pepper mix
3/4 cup milk
1 quart of shucked, drained oysters
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
Mix flour, baking powder, salt and pepper with a whisk and add eggs and milk. Mix into a thickish batter and fold in oysters.
On stove top, ladle into pan with hot oil. Let fritter settle and start to brown, then flip over and place in oven, 375 degrees. Remove when puffed up. Serve with lemon butter.
As an alternative, add cooked spinach, sliced spring onions, ham or mushrooms to the batter before cooking.
Per serving: 215 calories; 12 grams protein; 7 grams fat; 2 grams saturated fat; 25 grams carbohydrate; 117 milligrams cholesterol; 735 milligrams sodium
- Chef Kevin McKinney, Kennedyville Inn