You don't have to like bivalves to savor the atmosphere at city's popular oyster roasts

March 11, 2006|By JACQUES KELLY

I don't like oysters, but I'm drawn to Baltimore's oyster roasts. Throughout the winter, I'll spot an inelegant fraternal hall on the east or west side of town with a full parking lot on a Sunday afternoon. It's a good bet that the shuckers' hands are moving quickly and the tip bowl is full of singles, maybe a five. A bad band is playing background music.

Church halls are also classic venues. And any politician seeking office had better be there. I pity the poor candidate who can't slurp down a paper platter of raw oysters. If he can't, the election is lost.

An oyster roast is a high social occasion. Admittance is not open to the general public. You have to belong to the roast, in a sense, by membership in an organization, or have friends or relatives who do. This way, you'll get the privilege of buying a ticket - or better yet, of being a guest.

Oyster roasts come in all varieties and are often accompanied by some form of Sunday gambling. This depends upon jurisdiction. I know people who eat lightly and spend the afternoon at the wheels.

The wheels are where Las Vegas meets the Chesapeake Bay. They wheels are made of wood and are often painted the same ketchup-red as Baltimore's horse-drawn produce wagons. They emit that special oyster roast noise as the leather tab clicks over the nails around the wheel's circumference, not unlike the TV show Wheel of Fortune.

The real gamblers go to the money wheel, where the prizes are in cash. Over many years, I've seen a plush wheel (stuffed toy animals), a plant wheel, a cake wheel and a whiskey wheel. All are parish debt-reducers.

My grandfather took me to my first oyster roast, and it is the one against which I judge all the others.

A good oyster roast requires that air be cold. My first roast was staged by the Army Corps of Engineers at the end of Fort Avenue adjacent to Fort McHenry. It was mostly men, all dressed for the weather. Like my grandfather, they all wore hats, white shirts and ties, and suits.

I had never seen so much food consumed; and even though I was no friend of the oyster fritter, there were plenty of other choices, like hot dogs and mashed potatoes.

The event had no wheels (it was a quasi-federal event), but there were diversions. The Constellation was then new to Baltimore's harbor and an object of civic reverence. Some of her rotting timbers had been placed in a kind of memorial dump near the fort. My mother told us it would be all right if we took home a few splinters as souvenirs. We did.

The entertainment of the day arrived in the form of free rides on the diesel-powered boat the Corps of Engineers used for their work overseeing the harbor.

I had never seen a moving freighter this close before; my mother had her movie camera clicking away for this important family occasion. It was just like Helen Delich Bentley's popular Sunday afternoon television show, The Port that Built a City and State. The afternoon's highlight was our pass along Sparrows Point and the Bethlehem Steel plant, in full 1950s operation. It was better than an oyster roast in Steelworkers' Hall.

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