Raw, baked or fried, they’re delicious

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May, 2021

By Jean Kerr
For Points East

Jonathan Swift once said, “Twas a bold man that first ate an oyster.” Others throughout history have understandably expressed the same sentiment. But whether the motivation was bravery or pure hunger, we owe the first oyster eaters a huge debt.

Your Basic Cocktail Sauce

  • 2/3 cup of good quality ketchup
  • 1 tablespoon grated horseradish
  • 1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice
  • 1 teaspoon Worcestershire sauce
  • Pinch of Old Bay seasoning
  • Cracked pepper to taste

Combine all ingredients and chill.

Mignonette Sauce

  • 2/3 cup good quality white wine or sherry vinegar
  • 2 tablespoons very finely chopped shallots
  • 1 teaspoon of sugar
  • Splash of red vermouth
  • Cracked black pepper to taste

Put all ingredients in a jar with a tight lid. Shake vigorously. Allow to stand for at least an hour. Refrigerate and save any leftover sauce for your next blissful oyster encounter.

And, in New England, we should be particularly grateful. Oysters are nature’s water cleaning and filtration system. In fact, they can filter out enough distasteful matter to turn polluted water into clean seawater. They played a huge part in New England’s early economy, and through the efforts of present day oyster farmers, they continue to contribute to our maritime economy. But the precious briny morsels that slip so easily into our mouths are, alone, worthy of our thanks.

The ability of oysters to filter out waste and toxins in our waterways is legendary. A full-grown oyster can filter and clean about 50 gallons of water a day. This includes filtering out nitrogen that finds its way into our bays and inlets from agricultural (and other) sources. Miraculously, oysters filter such substances and form a little trash bag of waste that is then deposited on the bottom and broken down.

Oysters have been consumed for thousands of years, from indigenous people along our coastlines, to Greek and Roman gourmands. By the 1800’s, oysters were one of the most common street foods in the northeast.

Whether you are a purist who will eat only raw oysters, shucked moments before, or a lover of the many wonderful cooked preparations — fried oysters, oyster stew, Oyster Rockefeller or roasted oysters to name a few, we no longer need the boldness that Swift declared.

Personally, I don’t think I’ve ever met an oyster I didn’t like. As long as they are fresh and well shucked or otherwise prepared, they are one of the finest fruits of the sea. (I guess this is hereditary. My father could pound down oysters on the half shell like nobody’s business.) I am also a proponent of cold-water oysters, small and briny, but somehow sweet, as well. Others prefer the larger warmer water variety that is found in the Chesapeake and the southern waters of the Gulf of Mexico and the Mississippi Delta.

Oyster “farms” are now an essential part of our aquaculture. It seems that aquaculture is a part of our food economy, and oyster growers can lay claim to culinary, environmental and ecological success (unlike some of the dodgy fisheries overseas that bring us questionable shrimp and other seafood).

These days, many New England restaurants offer hugely popular buck-a-shuck evenings, ideal for oyster-gobblers like myself. Two sauces are most often served: the standard “cocktail sauce,” and the classic mignonette sauce. Above are my versions:

Jean Kerr is the author of four cookbooks, all related to New England and the sea. She is the former editor of “Northeast Flavor” magazine. She has been sailing, cooking and writing about food for more than 30 years.