Church's ham, oyster tradition

For more than 100 years, volunteers make supper an annual must-eat event

October 31, 2007|By Laura Shovan | Laura Shovan,Special to Sun

Linda Shaw doesn't mind getting messy. And Saturday, the longtime school media specialist will have her gloved hands caked in egg and cracker meal as she helps prepare a Maryland delicacy -- hand-patted, deep-fried oysters.

Shaw volunteers for the job at Linden-Linthicum United Methodist Church in Clarksville. She is one of many church members who have helped run the annual ham and oyster supper for years. The dinner will run from 3 p.m. to 7 p.m. Saturday at the church.

Shaw's husband, Ronnie, also volunteers. His mother, the late Ryda Shaw, introduced Linda to the church event. "She got me into patting oysters," Linda Shaw said. "That's what she used to do, and her mother before her. Now I'm still patting oysters."

Preparing oysters isn't for everyone. The oysters -- bought and cooked the day of the supper -- are placed in raw egg seasoned with salt and pepper. The recipe is not a secret, but the church has been serving oysters this way for more than 100 years.

"You take one hand of cracker meal, and then you spear an oyster with your fork in the bowl and put it in the cracker meal," she said. "You grab some more cracker meal and put it on the oyster and you go back and forth, from hand to hand. Usually we put two oysters together to make a patty. If you have enough cracker meal in your hand, it doesn't feel too oozy."

"I'm a little nervous," said the Rev. Bryant Oskvig, who joined the church in July. "They're putting me to work. They're having me do something called patting."

"The excitement of getting messy is all the fun of it," Linda Shaw said. "We tell jokes, and we have fun, and we talk. We have great fellowship around the table."

There are about 80 volunteers, most of them church members. Those who aren't preparing food will clean dishes, set tables and serve meals.

The group is raising money to renovate the church kitchen and expects to earn $4,000 to $6,000. However, Linda Shaw said fellowship, not money, is the focus of the event, particularly because turnout has been lower as people become more health-conscious.

"It's not appealing to them, or it's not healthy, but actually oysters are pretty good for you," she said. "If it's once or twice a year, ... you [eat] those unique things while you have a chance. That's what's fun about it."

As Linden-Linthicum's history chairwoman, Shaw has the opportunity to read the records of the church women's group. The records show an oyster feast dating to at least 1899. The event has continued through the years despite merging congregations, snowstorms and a fire.

The supper traditionally was held on Election Day. "Farmers that lived around here would take the day off and dress up and go to the polls," she said. "While they were out, they would stop for dinner."

In those early years, horse and cart delivered the oysters. Now, Shaw's son-in-law picks up 60 to 65 gallons of wild oysters the morning of the event. A member of the Shaw family has made the 50-minute trek to Woodfield's Oyster House in Galesville for the past 40 years.

"It's a lot of work, but we enjoy doing it," said Ronnie Shaw, who is chairman of the kitchen.

Volunteering is a family affair for the Shaws, five of whom spent Sunday afternoon preparing for the supper. Shaw's grandson, Jamie Kennedy, 13, wiped out drawers in the kitchen and helped prepare dressing for side dishes.

"I like just having everyone around and meeting new people" at the supper, he said. "I feel like I have to carry it on. It's an important thing for this church."

His uncle, Doug Shaw of Jessup, agreed. "I am very proud of my family" for its commitment to the event, he said.

For those who don't like oysters, baked ham is an option. That tradition dates back many years, to a time when local farmers would donate a ham for the event. Ronnie Shaw expects to buy 200 pounds of ham from Boarman's market in Highland.

There also are homemade side dishes, such as potato salad and coleslaw. And another throwback, succotash, which Linda Shaw said is made of lima beans and corn. "It's kind of an old Maryland dish, a country farmers' dish," she said.

This year, hot dogs are being added to the menu for children who can't be persuaded to try oysters.

Between 500 and 600 people are expected to attend. Tickets, which can be bought in advance or at the door, are $16 for adults and $5 for children.

Oskvig said that he has been taking calls about the supper from across the region.

"I'm just surprised," he said. "It's not just the local community" that knows about the supper.

Those who attend -- Linda Shaw included -- wait all year for a taste of fried oysters. "The crispness of the cracker meal, and they're served warm with a little cocktail sauce on the side -- it's a great delicacy that you'll only find" at the church, she said.

Fried oysters at restaurants don't measure up, said Shaw, who added that the church's oyster patties are as wide as a person's palm.

Once or twice a year, she said, she gets a hankering for oysters and makes the recipe at home "just because I've missed having them all year. They are a Maryland delicacy for sure."

The Linden-Linthicum United Methodist Church is at 12101 Linden Linthicum Lane, Clarksville. Information: www. l-lumc.org or 410-531-5653.

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