IN MARYLAND OYSTERS are a staple, sometimes as needy of new uses as zucchini in August. Where oysters are less abundant one hardly dares to eat them any way but in their natural state -- cold, raw, still lying on their just-opened shells. But at local oyster feasts, from Prince George's to St. Mary's counties, raw oysters are just the palate cleansers between oyster courses. Oysters roasted, oysters scalded, oysters pickled and oysters stewed precede and succeed each other. Then one refreshes the tongue with a few more briny cold ones and starts in again.
They call it an oyster roast and house it in a garage or a hall. That's if it's considered too cold to hold it outdoors, which is almost never. The main ingredient is obviously a truckload or so of oysters, with a few oystermen along to open them and provide a little oyster commentary as they do so. Then there's beer--none of this bone-dry chablis business. If it's a really elaborate shindig, there could to be some country ham and biscuits, possibly roast beef for anyone new enough to the county to still eat something besides oysters at an oyster roast.
But nobody loses sight of the real reason for gathering, to help Maryland use up some of those oysters. The consensus is that at a typical P.G. County oyster roast you eat a couple dozen, but some local politicians have become famous (and who knows, maybe even kept their offices) for downing 50 at a clip. And somebody is bound to boast that you really only need three, their being so big in Maryland.
Most of them are consumed as stew, not because anybody hangs around less at the tables of roasted and scalded oysters, but because stew is more efficient -- even when you ask for just a little, you get a good half-dozen in your bowl. And everybody in the state is so dogmatic about his own oyster stew recipe that he's gotta do some hovering around the stew table to sneer.
Now, the roasted and scalded oysters are easy. In fact, they are identical except that roasted ones are cooked on a grill -- preferably over wet gunny sacks for steam -- until they begin to open, and scalded oysters are dumped in scalding water just until they begin to open and puff up. All you need to know is to not overcook them, so they are plump and warm but not chewy. They can be dipped in ketchup with or without horseradish, or they can have some lemon juice squeezed over them. But best of all, they can be dunked into a bowl of vinegar that has been steeped with whole hot peppers, chunks of onion and wedges of tomato.
If you know the right people you might have pickled oysters. The people you need to know are the intimates of Baltimore's Maryland Club, which serves them each Thanksgiving and Christmas, made by chef Paul Crowninshield. He devised the recipe from research among Eastern Shore people, who are addicted to these powerfully briny pickles. And if you are a glutton for history, you could include oyster mush, which Agnes Clagett, who works in the Prince George's County Law Library, learned from Alvin Parks, a retired oysterman. Oyster mush, which Parks said hadn't been made in half a century, used to be the corned beef hash of the oystermen, who concocted it as an easy and filling way to serve oysters for yet another meal on the skipjacks. In fact, said Parks, it was likely to be served three times a day because it was quick and didn't require any perishables except the oysters. Clagett entered it in an oyster cooking contest but won only second prize despite its deliciousness, because, the judges told her, it is so ugly.
As for the stew, there is one area of local agreement: You don't add milk or cream to oyster stew. Let those New Englanders dilute their clams with milk; in Maryland you're going to taste your oysters. Well, your oysters and your butter. Because the real truth is that in a Maryland stew they probably use as much melted butter as New Englanders use milk.
There's nothing to it. Just take a whole lot of oysters, freshly shucked, and immerse them in butter, letting the butter slowly melt and the oysters slowly heat, with nothing but salt and pepper to sully them. You know when they're done "when their lips curl," explained one veteran stewmaker. Serve about nine of the oysters and their broth in a plastic bowl with a plastic spoon in a chilly Maryland garage, along with a paper cup of beer. And watch everybody try to juggle the stew and the beer, which is even harder in Maryland because the other major activity at an oyster roast is shaking hands. PRINCE GEORGE'S COUNTY OYSTER STEW (20 to 30 servings) 5 quarts freshly shucked oysters, with their juices 2 pounds butter Pepper Salt In a large pot, over a slow fire, combine oysters -- with their juices -- and butter. Let heat slowly, breaking up the butter with a spoon and stirring gently occasionally. Season with plenty of pepper (two long dashes from a big tin of pepper will do) and a couple of sprinkles of salt. When the butter is melted, cover the pot and continue to heat 5 to 10 minutes, just until the edges of the oysters begin to curl. Do not overcook or let the heat get too high; this should not boil. Serve immediately. ALVIN PARKS' OYSTER MUSH (6 to 8 servings) 1/2 pound cooked country ham, cubed Bacon fat for saute'eing (optional) 1 pint oysters, with their liquor, coarsely chopped 2 cups water, or more 2 cups white cornmeal Salt and pepper to taste
Saute' ham, in bacon fat if desired, until it browns lightly; set aside. In a heavy skillet warm chopped oysters in their liquor just until their edges curl. Add 2 cups water, salt only if needed, and pepper to taste. Gradually stir in cornmeal and cook, stirring constantly, over very low heat for 10 minutes until thickened. If it thickens too much, add a little more water. Stir in ham and serve hot.
This cold-weather dish could substitute for hominy or creamed chipped beef at breakfast or brunch, and also serves well as a warming dish after a football game. MARYLAND CLUB PICKLED OYSTERS (6 to 8 servings) 2 cups white wine 1 quart plus 1 cup white vinegar 2 tablespoons sugar, or to taste 3 tablespoons pickling spice 1 large or 2 medium carrots, thinly sliced 1 medium onion, thinly sliced 1 celery knob (lower 1/3 of bunch), thinly sliced 1/2 teaspoon salt 1 quart oysters Chopped parsley for serving
Combine wine, 1 quart vinegar, sugar, pickling spice, carrot, onion and celery, and boil for 4 minutes. Strain and reserve. In another pot combine 1 cup vinegar, salt and oysters and let stand 10 minutes. Bring to boil and simmer 3 minutes, skimming scum that rises. As soon as edges begin to curl, strain oysters from liquid and drop them into the wine-vinegar mixture. Store, refrigerated, at least 12 hours or up to 2 weeks; they are at their best after 5 days. Serve well chilled, in a cocktail cup, sprinkled with chopped parsley.