Bites of History: On the half shell

What’s Christmas without oyster dressing? And really, do we even need the excuse of a holiday to chow down on our favorite bivalve?

We south Louisiana residents love our oysters. And we can also brag that our area’s innovative cooks have developed a myriad of world-class oyster dishes.

Of our fantastic array, none is more revered or written about than Oysters Rockefeller. This classic was created during an 1899 European snail shortage that prompted Jules Alciatore, owner of Antoine’s Restaurant in New Orleans, to smother Gulf oysters in the shell with a sauce made of native greens.

The elegant broiled dish ended up tasting so “rich” that Alciatore named it after one of the wealthiest men in the country, John D. Rockefeller.

Another Louisiana classic was created in the early 1920s when the colorful “Count” Arnaud of New Orleans’s Arnaud’s Restaurant popularized the now classic Oysters Bienville.

This savory dish is also served on the half shell, and is topped with a cheesy, creamy, shrimp-laced sauce. Then, there’s the multitude of local oyster and artichoke casseroles, oysters cooked Italian style, oyster po-boys, oyster stews, and the now-popular Charbroiled Oysters, a smoke-tinged butter and garlic treat made famous by Metairie’s Drago’s.

And who can ignore a briny raw oyster doused with horseradish sauce? (Well, maybe a few of you can ignore them.)

But regardless of your favorite dish, with all the hullabaloo surrounding these famed oyster specialties, it should not be surprising that, with the possible exception of crawfish, oysters are more closely associated with southern Louisiana than any other product.

Oysters have been consumed since prehistoric times and were especially popular with the Celts, Romans and Greeks. Native Americans generated large mounds of oyster shells along North America’s shores, and throughout our state’s modern history Crassostrea virginica, the American oyster, has appeared in numerous writings.

The first French folk to arrive here were a little snooty about Gulf oysters, with the explorer Iberville proclaiming that our variety was “not of so good a quality as those of Europe.”

It seems Louisiana’s oysters did not pass the snuff test until Native Americans introduced them to the undiscriminating French Acadians around 1764, just one year after a primitive New York City saloon sold the first colonial oysters to the public.

Perhaps New Orleans’s fussy French majority would not have been so particular had they known that back in Europe, Casanova was downing plates of oysters before his amorous adventures and bolstering the legend that oysters are an aphrodisiac.

But the Creole French eventually got over their aversion. Soon, oysters were aggressively being sold on New Orleans street corners. Apparently these vendors were so bellicose that in 1805, “Anonymous” wrote a letter to the editor of the Louisiana Gazette complaining that the “noise and bawling” from the oyster peddlers’s konk shells bothered the citizenry from “morning to night.”

Back then, oysters were naturally found and harvested from the ideal brackish soup where the waters of the Mississippi, Atchafalalya and Pearl rivers mixed together.

Early Louisiana oyster harvesters included French, Acadian, Spanish and Sicilian immigrants. Cultivation did not begin until after 1840, with the arrival of waves of seasoned fishermen from the Dalmation coast in Croatia.

These former sailors from the Adriatic Sea gravitated to the fishing life in Louisiana, where they rigged together one-room raised cabins on the coast of lower Plaquemines Parish, about 80 miles south of New Orleans.

During the mid-1850s, these Slavic transplants started methodical cultivation, and soon they had developed a dual method of oyster fishing: natural reef oysters for cooking and canning, and cultivated oysters for half-shell consumption.

As we all know, the BP oil spill and hurricanes Katrina and Isaac dealt horrific blows to our state’s oyster beds. But our tenacious local fishermen have made a dramatic recovery. And although commercial oyster harvests east of the Mississippi River are at historic lows, on the whole, oyster farming in Louisiana is once again big business.

According to the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries, 396,453 private and 1,681,199 public acres are available for oyster production, with these local beds producing more than one-third of U.S. oysters.

This important industry has a $266 million economic impact and employs some 10,000 commercial fishermen, oyster farmers, oyster dealers and oyster processors.

In addition, New Orleans’ P&J Oyster Co., in business for more than 130 years, can boast that it’s the oldest continually operating oyster dealer in the United States. And many Louisiana families take pride in the fact that, in spite of the whims of weather, they have been oystering on our coast for up to seven generations.

So, when you’re deciding on a menu for that big feast, remember that few holiday foods say “Louisiana” as much as the oyster. And whether you serve them raw, dressed up fancy, or tucked in your traditional Christmas dressing, they will be a thoughtful gift to your dining guests.

Cynthia LeJeune Nobles is a member of the Newcomb College Culinary History Writers Group and the author of LSU Press’s title “The Delta Queen Cookbook.” You can contact her at noblescynthia@gmail.com.

Sources: New Orleans Cuisine (Tucker, 2008); www.louisianaoysters.org; www.oysterlover.com, Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries