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Oysters: Colonial staple now Valentine's mainstay

Oysters: Colonial staple now Valentine's mainstay

The once common, then scarce, oyster has become one of nature's aphrodisiacs
Oysters: Colonial staple now Valentine's mainstay
A Surf Board at Oysters and Ale showcases oysters, shrimp and crab
Photographer: Peter R. Barber

The allure of the oyster is longstanding. One look at Venus de Milo emerging from the oyster shell in the early Renaissance painting by Botticelli is enough to prove the sensual association placed on the oyster.

Historians and archaeologists point to ancient heaps of oyster shells (paired with hedonistic activity) as evidence of the oyster as nature’s best aphrodisiac. Modern eaters agree: Oysters are mainstays on Valentine’s Day menus throughout the Capital Region.

But oysters weren’t always the food of the frisky. Oysters were once as common as free bar peanuts at neighborhood pubs.

Accounts from Colonial settlers in the Chesapeake Bay area detail how the plentiful supply of oysters kept poorly provisioned Europeans alive. Captain John Smith chronicled the delicate flavor of downriver Virginia oysters as compared to mollusks from the British Isles, while northern Pilgrims, in Plymouth, Massachusetts, saved oysters for themselves while feeding clams and mussels to livestock.

Trading apples for oysters

Middens (historic trash heaps) along the Hudson River point to the role oysters played as a dietary staple for Native Americans, who would eat them raw and roasted. Heidi Knoblauch, owner of Plumb Oyster Bar in Troy, says oysters were harvested as far north as Ossining, and the Dutch patroons of the Rensselaer family (whose deeded land has become today’s Capital Region) would trade this area’s plentiful apples for downriver oysters. “On the Score of Hospitality,” a book published by Historic Cherry Hill (the house that was home to the Van Rensselaers) offers four recipes for oysters that would be served to the wealthy elite of early Albany.

Still, the generous stock of oysters relegated them to the lower classes, as coastal Southern slaves would fry oysters and urban laborers — especially the Irish and British — would frequent oyster houses for quick, cheap meals. The oyster Po’Boy sandwich — traditionally consisting of cornmeal-fried oysters in cheap buttered bread — of Louisiana fame hearkened to the diets and habits of the poorer classes in America. 

Capitalizing on the appeal of oysters, the movement of oysters north on the Hudson and west on the Erie Canal, and the booming hop industry in New York (beer historian Craig Gravina says that by the 1880s, 80 percent of all hops in the U.S. were grown in New York), tavern owners began serving oysters and ale together. Matthew Vassar, founder of Vassar College, opened the first “oyster saloon” in Poughkeepsie in 1812 in the basement of the city’s new courthouse. The draw of oysters helped push the sale of beer, as brewing was Vassar’s primary means of income after a fire devastated the family fortune, according to John Raymond’s “Biographical Sketch of Matthew Vassar.”

Albany Institute of History & Art houses in its collection lanterns and signage from Schoharie taverns that advertise oysters and beer availability.

Becoming more plentiful

The first indications of oysters as a luxury item came in the late 1800s, when Oysters Rockefeller was first offered at New Orleans restaurant Antoine’s, which paired a lush cream sauce with oysters that was as rich as the man it was named for, according to Roy Guste’s cookbook chronicling the historic restaurant.

Jack’s Oyster House, the centenarian Albany restaurant that sits just east of aptly named Pearl Street, has meager beginnings as a simple oyster-shucking establishment that followed the trends toward sybaritic dining.
Oysters eventually became overfished, leading what remained in oyster beds to be harvested and priced at a premium. Oysters took precedence in pricing on menus and were reserved for fine dining and special occasions, like Valentine’s Day, where the notion of oysters as romantic food flourished. 

Oysters are becoming more plentiful again, and the taste for their succulent citric, melon-forward and briny notes whet appetites. Albany Ale and Oyster, on New Scotland Ave, makes the classic pairing of beer and oysters the primary draw to the eatery. 

“People were really looking for oysters,” and many restaurants were not selling them or giving them significant placement on menus, says restaurant partner Mia Hinner. Hinner says they try to focus on pairing options with an extensive tap list.

“Oysters go really well with certain beers,” she says, and Saison, a highly carbonated pale ale with origins in Belgium, is the preferred pairing at Albany Ale and Oyster.

Knoblauch likes to feature geographically diverse oysters on her menu at Plumb Oyster Bar, finding that, “oysters are like wine. Different regions taste different,” and that people are opening oyster bars around the country in the same way wine bars became popular a decade-plus before.

Both restaurants are unveiling new menu items for Valentine’s Day. At Plumb Oyster Bar, new chef Brandon Schatko will offer an oyster-focused menu that currently features a variety of seafood, while Albany Ale and Oyster will be releasing a new toppings for raw oyster platters, like kimchi, jalapeno salsa, guacamole and cucumber salad. Oyster specials are available at both locations.

The long gastronomic history of the oyster — from survival mechanism to plebeian foodstuff to decadent treat — continues to bear influence in the Capital Region. Whether to quell hunger with a salty slurp or abet the loving feeling with a hoist of the half-shell to the lips, new local menus make it easy to keep the meal oyster-centric.

Deanna Fox is a freelance food and agriculture writer. www.foxonfood.com @DeannaNFox.

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