Remembering when oysters were abundant


Back Story

Taking Note of History

April 16, 2005|By Frederick N. Rasmussen | Frederick N. Rasmussen,SUN STAFF

He was a bold man that first eat an oyster.

-- Jonathan Swift

For oyster slurping connoisseurs, April marks the last "R" month for enjoying oysters until September.

But as far back as the 1940s, experts were promoting the idea that there was no harm in eating oysters year-round, yet it was probably a good idea to give the oyster a summer vacation so it could spawn and reproduce.

"The erroneous idea that this saltwater delicacy becomes poisonous or otherwise inedible from May through August (the R-less months) originated more than a century ago when settlement began reaching far inland from the Atlantic Coast," The Sun reported in a 1948 article. "Inlanders feared and often rightly so, that oysters would spoil on the long, unrefrigerated, hot weather trip from sea to tartar sauce."

To revive the sagging oyster industry, the Maryland Department of Natural Resources is considering a controversial proposal to introduce Asian oysters, Crassostrea ariakensis -- a non-native species -- into the Chesapeake Bay.

This comes in reaction to a 20-year decline in the bay's oyster production, from a historic peak of 15 million bushels harvested during the 1984-1985 season, to the 26,495 bushels of the 2003-2004 season.

An exhibit on the campus of the Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum in St. Michaels recalls the halcyon days of the industry.

In a rather spacious wooden shed, visitors can climb aboard the E.C. Collier, a vintage skipjack, now out but not far from the salty bay waters, where for decades watermen toiled on its slippery decks dredging for oysters that carried Tidewater Maryland's reputation and demand for the succulent mollusks far from its shores.

Black-and-white pictures recall the back-breaking labor of tonging oysters from the bay.

Waiting at dockside packing houses were lines of shuckers in black rubber aprons, boots and gloves, standing at water-covered benches. There, with the skill of a surgeon, they freed the meat from its shell with a swift kick of an oyster knife.

The meat was deposited in oyster tins bearing the name of the packing house for shipment to distant markets.

"The Chesapeake Maritime Museum just acquired a collection of 600 tins from a collector that are mostly from Maryland and Virginia packing houses," museum curator Lindsley E.H. Rice said the other day. "The oldest can dates to the 1880s, and we have one that still has the oysters inside. And we have no plans to open it."

Rice says there are about 30 packing houses still in operation -- a far cry from the days when there were hundreds.

H.L. Mencken, in his 1940 memoir Happy Days, described the Chesapeake Bay of his youth as an "immense protein factory" out of which Marylanders "ate divinely."

"Oysters were eaten, of course, but not often, for serving them raw at the table was beyond the usual domestic technic of the time, and it was difficult to cook them in any fashion that made them consonant with contemporary elegance," he wrote.

"Fried, they were fit only to be devoured at church oyster-suppers, or gobbled in oyster-bays by drunks wandering home from scenes of revelry," he wrote.

While the Sage of Baltimore eschewed oyster stew in favor of crab soup, he never tired of praising the oyster pot pie prepared in the kitchens of Baltimore's famed and long-gone Rennert Hotel.

Perhaps Maryland's most well-known and desired oyster is the salty Chincoteague from its namesake bay.

One of history's great trenchermen and oyster devotees was James "Diamond Jim" Buchanan Brady, the larger-than-life railroad car salesman who as vice president of Standard Steel Car Co. had an annual pre-income tax salary of $ 1 million at the turn of the last century.

If Brady's wallet bulged, so did his seemingly insatiable appetite for vast quantities of food, which he washed down with oceans of orange juice.

As a warm-up for a meal, Brady would routinely devour several dozen plates of Chincoteagues and Lynnhavens, from Virginia, or Blue Points from Long Island.

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