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RBR Tailgating: Oysters on the Half Shell

Oysters at a tailgate? What are we, some former Big East basketball school from New England?

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No. We’re Alabama, which, per some website I’d never heard of until this afternoon says “Historically Speaking, Alabama happens to be the largest processor of oysters in the United Sates.” As per usual the research budget is not sufficient that I can use words like “thoroughly” or “vetted” but it sounds nice.

Note that it doesn’t say “largest producer.” I’m sure there is a lot to quibble about before assessing the verity of that claim, but it asserts something positive about the state and uses a variation on the word “process” which should commend itself mightily to this fan base.

No matter what our share of the national oyster industry pie, the little bivalves have a legitimate right to a place on our fold out table. I think it would be kind of eye catching too, if you like one-upping your neighbors. I don’t think I’ve ever seen anyone shucking on any of my walks around the quad. There would be plenty of people set up around you to turn to and say “Your burgers and hot dogs smell so good… wait. Maybe I’m smelling their burgers and hot dogs… or theirs.” (If you don’t know that I’m kidding, my obsessive love of both hot dogs and burgers have been well documented.)

After breaking my shellfish ban two weeks ago and posting a shrimp recipe I have been doing a bit of navel gazing about how much I miss eating the phylum. For those who don’t know, I was struck inexplicably by an allergy in 2000 or 2001 so the worst is not so much that I can’t eat shellfish but that I know how good they are. It’s like having been to Paris and then having to go back to the mean farm where they won’t let you eat shellfish.

Writing about shrimp put a few things back on the table for the purposes of this series. Considering the oyster, I reread a few pieces from M.F.K. Fisher’s collection, Consider the Oyster. While all of the entries in that book are great reading, the gem (a lesser man would have written “pearl”) is an essay called “R is for Oyster.”

I tried to find a free copy of the essay on the internet but that doesn’t seem to be available. You can buy a copy of the whole collection here sensibly priced between $2.51 for the Kindle edition and $195.00 for the hardback.

“R is for Oyster” begins with a wonderfully gruesome but fictional account of a man dying from eating a bad oyster, followed by a few thoughts on how most can identify one that has gone off before eating it, and then moving on to why even if there is such a thing as a tainted oyster floating around, modern transportation and refrigeration (published 1941) has all but eliminated the risk and besides, they’re delicious. After a bit of reveling about the now almost purely safe act of eating what was for most of history an actuarially tsked at pleasure, she skewers the “Only eat oysters in months containing an ‘r’.” myth.

With the exception of the occasional late August season kick-off we don’t need to concern ourselves with r-less months, but I mention it because it may be my favorite piece of food writing and well worth the $2.51 for the Kindle edition. I assume it’s $192.49 better in hardback, but haven’t had the opportunity to thoroughly vet that assumption due to aforementioned research budgetary constraints.

Back to the tailgate, choosing a kind of oyster is of personal preference. The stateriotic thing to do would be to grab a bag of iced down Eastern oysters, also known by the name Virginia, Wellfleet, Atlantic, or American, from one of Alabama’s thirteen farms.

If you can’t find those, Eastern oysters are the grown all over the Gulf. The most widely known are likely those from Apalachicola, Florida. They’re easy to find in the southeast and if you’re worried about bringing a Florida product to an Crimson Tide tailgate remember that per that website the likelihood is that like Jerry Jeudy, though from the Sunshine State, they were processed in Alabama.

Gulf oysters tend to be fat, sweet, and clean tasting. If you like something a bit saltier, try a Pacific oyster. They are usually smaller, but they pack a nice little punch and since it was thought that even 1941 transportation and technology could get them to you safely and freshly, I just asked my Echo Dot how quickly we can fly food from Seattle to Birmingham and it told me “A fly’s length is .6 - .7 centimeters.” Not perfect, but we still have better technology than they had in the year that Bill Baxley and Martha Stewart were born, so if it was available safely and freshly then, it should be available safely and freshly now.

This can be as complicated or as easy a tailgate as you’d like. At the very least, you’ll need a big chest full of ice to keep the oysters in, a sharp oyster specific knife, and a heavy towel. Since this is a tailgate and there will likely be some beer and brown liquor passed around, you might want to consider a first aid kit as well, but that’s up to you. These are just cool if you want to err on the side of invulnerability.

A selection of oysters available at Fancy’s on 5th.

As shown here by Paget Pizitz, one of the proprietors over at Fancy’s on 5th in Birmingham, shucking oysters is pretty straight forward.

First, holding the oyster down with a towel, insert the knife and wedge open.

Next, cut the muscle holding the hinged end together and remove the top.

Gently slide the knife around and under the oyster cutting any connective tissue to fully separate the meat from the shell.

Be careful throughout not to spill any of the liquor from the shell.

And, done.

Put on an ice bed and repeat until happy.

If you like, you can be done now. These things are great straight out of the shell as nature intended, but they take well to civilizing as well. Grated horseradish sprinkled over the top or dipped in simple cocktail sauce (ketchup with Worcestershire, lemon, and grated horseradish to taste - it should be noted that unless specified, these quick fire recipes are mine and not Fancy’s on 5th’s who no doubt have a far more interesting cocktail sauce, etc. You should go try.)

Raw oysters can actually cast Saltines, those insipid saliva sponges that have no other use than to dip into chili, in a good light provided you add a few dashes of Tabasco.

My favorite accompaniment though, is a Mignonette sauce. There are a lot of variations and I waver between using red wine vinegar or embracing what I thought was a heretical combination of Champagne and champagne vinegar though it seems it’s apparently fairly common. I thought I was a rebel.

No matter what vinegar or combination you use, ½ cup mixed with 2 tablespoons of minced shallots and two teaspoons of crushed mixed black, white, and green peppercorns should be plenty for a dozen. I use Mignonette with white fish these days, and it’s very good. But with oysters, it’s transcendent.

If you don’t want to stop at raw, fire up a grill.

Different grills are going to burn at different heats so I’m not going to dictate time and temps for cooking these. If I were the grill master, I’d take one and set it on as a guinea oyster to see how quickly it cooks. Keep in mind that if you just shucked them they’re fine to eat raw so no overcooking. Typically once the liquor bubbles you are done, but you know your grill, so have at it.

A little compound butter (butter with simple additives - I like it with garlic, flat leaf parsley, and a dash of lemon) melted on top is easy and crowd pleasing but you can get much more adventurous.

Above is Chef Joey Dickerson’s grilled oyster of the day from last night - tomato jam with goat cheese and bacon. It looks staggeringly good.

Chef Dickerson puts the finishing touches on the grilled oysters of the day.

He also offers his twist on the most famous grilled oysters of all, Oysters Rockerfeller. His version, Oysters Avondale, is topped with garlic cream, white cheddar, spinach, panko, and bacon and I’m told is damn tasty. Follow his example and get creative. This is a great canvas to play around with flavors on.

So, we have Texas A&M coming into BDS this week. They’re particularly proud of the home field advantage their crowd provides. It’d be nice to send them back to College Station full of tales about the… ahem, stamina of the Tuscaloosa crowd. Maybe a dozen on the half shell per would insure that we make them rethink how great their 12th man is?

Special thanks to everybody at Fancy’s on 5th, especially Harriett Despinakis, Paget Pizitz, and Joey Dickerson for their time and patience.

Enjoy, no injuries, and Roll Tide!