Precious Oysters

The Chesapeake Bay's bounty has diminished, but on the Eastern Shore chefs and diners still love the local bivalve.

February 04, 2004|By Ellen Uzelac | Ellen Uzelac,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

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."

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