My wife and I were in Apalachicola, Florida, a few years ago to spend a weekend eating oysters. Apalachicola is a small town, nestled on the elbow of the Florida panhandle, and it’s about as far away as you can get from fancy city seafood restaurants that serve things like braised medallions of clam spleens au pfui with a reduction of kelp pulp remoulade (see menu, below). No, there are no French words on the menus of Apalachicola – it’s a working town with most of its people in the oystering business in one way or another, and they’re doing a fine job of it because about half the oysters eaten in the United States come from Apalachicola Bay. We knew this, we knew they were good, so we drove down there from Atlanta to eat oysters that couldn’t possibly be any fresher.
It needs to said right here that my wife and I have traveled widely throughout the deep Deep South, especially south Georgia, and we’ve heard some local southern drawls that bordered on needing translation, but the voices in Apalachicola cranked it up to a new level of sublime, liquid-smooth, brain-straining incoherence. Consider this way of thanking someone:
“Preeshaytchah.” This is a three-syllable shrinkage of I appreciate you, a common regional form of “thanks.”
Or consider the oyster-shucker in the riverfront oyster bar where we sat at the counter with big smiles on our faces after downing a dozen oysters for a mere $7 (!) – full-fleshed, juicy and sweet – just hours after being plucked from Apalachicola Bay.
I smiled and reeled off at lightning speed, “You don’t have to hit me twice upside the head with no tire iron to get nuth duzz of these succulent gifts from the sea!”
Actually, I didn’t quite say that, as I recall. It was more like, “Yes, please” in my usual Yankee voice. The man commenced to shucking, opening oysters as fast as some people deal cards. I swear those oysters open so easily because, like every other living thing in that part of the south, the soothing climate and tranquilizing pace of the area put you at risk of relaxing yourself to death.
It’s different here in Maine, of course. We have a friend nearby who often brings down a mess of oysters – Pemaquids, North Haven, Vinalhaven, Damariscotta, and Weskeag – and it’s as if those oysters were raised with attitude. Think you’re gonna get me open? Suffah!
At length we prevail over the pesky bivalves, with a minimum of blood loss, but it can be quite a battle. Here’s a quick rundown of our technique:
Do this on a large cutting board or other hard surface you don’t care about very much. Use an oven mitt or wear a heavy work glove on the hand that’s holding the oyster – for some measure of protection from a wayward knife blade. Better yet, use a terrycloth hand towel – it’ll sop up any spilled liquor. Place the oyster flat side up. Using an oyster shucking knife (no other knife will do!), insert the tip of the knife bevel side down between the shells at the hinge end (the narrower end), drive and wiggle it in as best you can – it takes quite a bit of pressure with these stubborn northern creatures. Keep driving and wiggling and pushing until you see some bubbles leaking out from around the seam of the shell, which means the oyster’s conceding defeat. Twist and pry the shell open, and slide the knife blade around the entire seam, freeing the meat from the shell.
Easy? No. You may want to buy them already shucked instead.
Most people we know here eat oysters raw with lemon or seafood cocktail sauce, or maybe in an oyster stew, but the recipe here is for baked oysters on the half shell. In Apalachicola oyster bars, baked oysters are served in all kinds of configurations, some of them pretty strange, but most of them so good it’s hard to stop at one dozen. We offer here some tasty and familiar toppings that you can mix and match any way you want! That’s why we call it –
BAKED OYSTERS MIX ‘N’ MATCH
1 dozen oysters, shucked, with some liquor still in the shell
And various ingredients (pick the ones you like:)
• crumbled crisp bacon or minced, cooked hot sausage
• grated parmesan or grated sharp cheddar
• minced onion, yellow or sweet
• minced diced tomatoes
• cayenne or red pepper flakes
• oregano or basil
You will need, as a finale:
• bread crumbs (Panko or regular)
• dab of butter
Preheat oven to 500. Arrange oysters in a baking pan. Layer very small amounts of any or all of the ingredients over the oyster meats, add 1/2 teaspoon of sherry (if desired), top with 1 teaspoon bread crumbs and a dot of butter. Bake for about 7 minutes or until the cheese is melted and the oyster meats start to curl. Let them cool a bit before serving.
Your guests will preeshaytchah!