Oysters In The Bluegrass

The question at Thanksgiving and Christmas when I grew up, seven miles away from a landlocked Kentucky town that then boasted 2,932 residents: "Would you like oyster or chestnut dressing?" I wanted both, always, and so did most of the family. The question I might have asked, but didn't: "How did those fresh oysters find their way to the IGA in Monticello, Kentucky, and into the list of top favorite foods for my Kentucky family?"

Earlier this week, prompted by a listener's question, my Hot Water Cornbread co-hosts and I puzzled over Kentucky's oyster dressing tradition. (Podcasts of our fledgling weekly radio shows will be available soon.) I shared the basic answer, derived with excellent help, yesterday.

Crassotrea gigas, photographed by David.Monniaux and used with Creative Commons permission via Wikimedia Commons. Thank you!

The photo above reminds us that oysters do not look all that edible. In fact, they recapitulate some barren, shades-of-grey landscape. More than 200 years ago, writer/cleric/satirist Jonathan Swift assumed it was a man, a brave one, who first ate an oyster. I'd bet on a woman, poking around in a tide pool, thinking about lunch.

And so, some recipes.

Sharon Thompson, former food writer for the Lexington Herald-Leader, kindly did a lot of our work for us by including four important recipes in this 2011 holiday story:

  • Oyster Stew
  • Scalloped Oysters (with Ritz crackers)
  • Beaumont Inn's Scalloped Oysters (with saltines)
  • Holly Hill Inn's Oyster Tart with creamy leeks, spinach and bacon

Mazzoni's Restaurant in Louisville famously offered these Rolled Oysters. I remember Dad coming home from FFA conventions or other trips to Louisville, telling of rolled oysters. A quick check on Yelp (scroll below the top two ad listings) suggests the rolled oyster thrives in our glorious, food-loving River City, even though Mazzoni's is no longer with us.

And here is Mrs. Lettice Bryan's Oyster Stuffing recipe from The Kentucky Housewife, published in 1839.

More lore:

  • Monahan's Seafood Market in (not exactly coastal) Ann Arbor, Michigan, describes four main oyster species.
  • NPR's Christopher Joyce reported in 2007 on Arizona State University anthropologist Curtis Marean's discovery in South Africa: humans were eating oysters and other shellfish, and making art (of course!) at least 164,000 years ago.
  • Southern Foodways Alliance (bless 'em) recorded this 2008 interview with Greg Haner of Mazzoni's Café, a Louisville restaurant that served rolled oysters for almost 125 years.
  • In The Big Oyster: History on the Half Shell (scroll down), Mark Kurlansky tells New York City's history as filtered through the chilly lips of our favorite bivalve. New York Times reviewer Elizabeth Royte didn't love it—or hate it—in 2006, but I just snagged a copy from the Lexington Public Library so I can make up my mind myself.

Sponsors included in this post: Holly Hill Inn.



Rona RobertsComment