A Warm Spot For Oyster Roasts

Jacques Kelly's Baltimore

January 14, 1996|By JACQUES KELLY

If you're new to town and are curious about what Baltimoreans are really like, just attend a local oyster roast. Or, for that matter, most any event involving food and held in a religious or fraternal organization's basement, school or social hall.

Winter is the high season for this town's big oyster feeds, when the fruits of the Chesapeake Bay woo the hungry to long tables and uncomfortable folding chairs. Patrons devour raw and fried oysters and oyster stew. Nonseafood dishes include roast beef, fresh (uncured) hams, sauerkraut, hot dogs, cold cuts and baked beans. Pitchers of beer disappear before your eyes.

Certain rules and worries disappear on oyster-roast days. There is never foolish chatter about diets. There is never any guilt about gluttony. And people who would never ordinarily think about walking out of an event with a plastic cup full of lager in their hands do so at oyster roasts.

A friend of mine with a proper Massachusetts pedigree was complaining recently about the tipsiness of some beery and oyster-filled Masons who spilled over parts of North Baltimore after a big oyster fest. "It isn't seemly in this neighborhood to see men walking around with cups of beer and then doing whatever else happens," he said.

"It was an oyster roast. That's supposed to happen," I explained, as if the mere words oyster roast wiped away any guilt of conduct infringement.

Another component of the Maryland oyster roast is the belonging factor. You don't just appear at one as if you were placing an

order at Taco Bell. Nor do you make reservations for such a meal as you might at a restaurant.

You belong to an oyster roast, as you belong to a fraternal organization, a church or a club. The word belong can be stretched, though. You don't have to be an usher at St. Something's Church to attend its oyster roast. But somebody's sister-in-law goes there, buys and distributes the tickets (about $20 each) and arranges the table.

The guest list is as unshakable as the menu: neighborhood residents, people who grew up in the area and moved away, friends of friends. These people wouldn't miss a roast. Blood and loyal friendships count heavily.

Table arrangements at oyster roasts are some of the trickiest on the Baltimore social scene. In such close quarters, it's important not to seat together family members or neighbors who are not on the best of terms.

To be invited to take a place at an oyster-roast table is one of the greatest compliments. To be not invited to an annual event means your social stock is at its lowest point. Newcomers to town would do well to make friends among the oyster-roast set.

Any politician running for re-election or any incumbent wishing to keep a seat had better show up at the local oyster roast. Better yet, buy a table of tickets. And best, do both of the above and then place a full-page ad in the oyster-roast program (a revenue-raiser). To show to all on hand that he or she has a good appetite for down-home food, the candidate should gorge on everything in sight.

Oyster roasts have a distinct niche on the local culinary calendar. The first months of the year are the peak for these events. Marylanders traditionally eat oysters only in the cool months. Winter weather seems to whet the appetites. There is nothing to beat a gray January afternoon like walking down a set of church-basement steps and being greeted by the heat and din of a roomful of seafood-starved people.

I was reminded of this great spirit one winter Sunday a few years ago. I stepped into the clamor of the annual St. Peter the Apostle roast at Hollins and Poppleton streets. There was the indomitable matriarch of a clan, Betty Farace, who was attending the event with her daughter and grandchildren.

What comment did Miss Betty have for me? "This is a real West Baltimore oyster roast. We may be poor, but we know how to eat," she said.

Oyster roasts are practically all-afternoon affairs. When people aren't eating, they often can be found playing the games of chance that frequently are set up at charity oyster roasts.

But gaming tables are not the only form of entertainment at these get-togethers. If there is music, live or by disc jockey, you are sure to see mothers and sons, grandmothers and granddaughters together on the linoleum dance floor. You also are sure to hear "Because of You" and "I Left My Heart in San Francisco" before the afternoon is over.

Then, as the hands of the clock drift toward 5 or 6, people begin to leave the roast, with thoughts in their head of sprawling out at home on soft bedding or couches.

The band may strike up "God Bless America" as a signal to slowpokes that it's time to get on home. Within another hour, the remains of a great annual oyster roast will be in a garbage bag.

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