Making The Old -- and The Good -- New Again

By James Parrish Coleman -- a/k/a Jimbo Coleman

A later edition. Early Editions had a white

spine, and ads for long extinct local business.

Gulf Coast Gourmet was compiled by my late mother, Jane S. Coleman, in the early 1960s. The book was a fund raiser for the Foley Woman's Club.

The illustrations are the original work of a very talented artist named Marion Dyer. The book has been in print for many, many years; but has the simple fault of assuming you know about Gulf seafood and really know how to cook. I'll cook through the book (and my childhood), explain how Jane Coleman cooked, and tell a lot of family stories in the process. I like to cook. I will share what I have, and hope you like it. That's the spirit of this blog. Bon Appetit.

Friday, March 25, 2011

How ya like dem ersters, Mr. President?

"He was a bold man who first
ate an oyster,” said Jonathan 
Swift. Or a bold woman. My 
daughter, Sarah, (above) encountered
her first  oyster as a preteen.
Her older brother proffered it on
a cracker, impossible to refuse; 
she ate it. "Hmmh, good," she 
said. "Slimey, but good."
Bold man indeed.

I don't know if 1930s New Orleans Mayor Robert Mastri really said that to Franklin D. Roosevelt, but I sure hope so. 

Oysters are one of those foods that people love passionately, let out a teen-aged "Yuck!" on sight or blurt out, "You're not going to eat that, are you?"

The noble Oyster withstands it all.

What other food maintains its popularity, when menus regularly warn "This might be bad for you if your immune system is screwed up. Don't eat it!" Oysters are as safe as any other worthwhile pursuit.

I have a friend who is probably one of the 15 or 20 most knowledgeable guys on the Gulf when it comes to seafood. He does not talk much (not compared to a Coleman, anyway), but you should listen when he does. Especially when it comes to seafood. 

"When you eat an oyster, you eat the bay," he told me once. "Eating oysters out of a body of water is like drinking the seawater."

Commercially produced oysters are tagged and tracked to make sure they are safe to eat. When you hear stories about people getting sick eating them, it is almost always a case of poor handling. 

It is easy for an amateur to contaminate the oyster meat with bacteria on the shell, or fail to keep the oysters cool.

Don't buy a sack of oysters with your buddies on Christmas, eat as many as you can fresh from the packer, leave the sack in the "shade," come back a few hours later, eat some more, contaminate the oyster meat with all the gradoo now growing on the outside of the shell, and not expect to get sick.

Don't shame the oyster. Shame on you.

Remember, buying and selling seafood is easy. Handling it is hard. Buy from a reputable source, and you'll be fine.

My wife Frances 5 years after her seafood
 faux pas. She was, and is, a pretty woman, and

 the possessor of the classic Naugahyde Palate.
However, if she says it's good -- it is. 

But I really don't like........

It's hard to imagine a person who does not like seafood. When I learn of such alien species, I remember when my wife, as a stunning 25-year-old newlywed, admitted to a seafood packer friend that she did not really like shrimp! Maybe she corrected herself and said, "I really don't like raw shrimp." I hope so. Maybe she was so pretty, he pretended not to notice.


Daughter Sarah,  pretending fear of a
crawfish. The only thing more threatened by Sarah than a
pile of crawfish is a dozen oysters or a pint of beer.
 It makes a father proud!
Our children grew up eating anything (everything) put before them. James ordered squid from a high-chair and Sarah has no fear when it comes to food. They always ate what was before them. Aside from Sarah's strict chicken nugget and Sunny Delight diet as a kindergartner, I found that talking with the tiny tots about their food was very important. Not any of that "grow up to be big and strong" foolishness, either.

Refer to liver as "steak" when you serve it to them and make sure they remember that God and Santa want them to eat meat medium rare. Their little palates will naturally broaden beyond Pop-Tarts and Honey Nut Cheerios.

My Noble Friend Cassostrea virginica

One Gallon Metal Lithographed
Oyster Can like the ones my father
sold along the Gulf Coast
I grew up loving oysters, My father started his business largely on the strength of selling metal oyster cans. The huge cardboard cartons of cans would arrive in Foley, Ala., on a railroad box car, They would be unloaded on a long metal roller system that ran (to my 6-year-old amazement) from the tracks all the way across the alley to the metal warehouses he had built.
There, the cans would be held for customer's orders. The lithograph images on the cans were stock scenes of oysters or shells. The name and oyster packing license number would be stamped on each can with a machine supplied by the can manufacturer, Steel & Tin of Baltimore Md. (1912-1970)

Faithful dog Taffy, my sister Claudia and me on the
hood of the pick up used to deliver oyster cans to customers.
 You can see "Coleman Marine & Hdw., Ltd." on the door.
Taken in Magnolia Springs, Ala. in 1960
Daddy would then load the cans onto his truck for delivery to this customers. At first, it was a pickup with a rack on it that looked like something out of a comic strip (left). Cartons of oyster cans were literally loaded on the back, sides, top and over the cab of the little pickup.
Later he graduated to a bob-tail van for his trips to Louisiana. He dubbed the old truck "The Cajun Queen." I sincerely hope the old Campbell 66 van (with "Humpin' to Please" and a camel painted on the side)  was the only Cajun Queen Daddy spent any time with. 
Another of my father's famous
conveyances he sported up and 
down the coast in a Rambler 
station wagon, like this one. It
had a tag on the front saying 

"Eat Fish Live Longer, Eat Oysters 
Love Longer"My mother was mortified,
 and the tag was quickly removed.

Metal oyster cans have gone the way of the rotary dial telephone. In one of my other lives, I sold plastic containers and became very familiar with what the industry calls "thin-wall" plastic containers. I thought how inefficient and expensive the metal containers were, compared to the plastic. It was ironic that years after my father's death, I started my time traveling and selling, peddling containers -- just like he had.

I remember the last visit to my father from the representatives of  Steel & Tin Co., after plastic containers had taken over from the metal cans. By 1970 my father's business had also moved on, to marine supplies for the commercial shrimping fleet and boat building business.

"We're here to say goodbye to old times, Jimmy," the salesman said. "Goodbye to a great relationship and old times."

Daddy in front of Coleman Marine at 119 S. McKenzie St
in Foley, Ala., in 1960. He was killed in an automobile
accident on December 21, 1983.
 Jimmy Coleman loved fried oysters. Once, when my mother was hospitalized, he came home with a gallon of oysters, plunked them down on the kitchen counter and apparently expected my 13-year-old sister to fry them. (It ended up a team effort, as I recall.)  My father was more a beneficiary than participant in the kitchen. When I consider that a gallon of oysters yields about 25 dozen oysters, it is no wonder than I like oysters so much.
During that week my mother was ill, I must have eaten a lot of them!

Fried Oysters
Fried Oysters are like commission salesmen (something both my father and I were at one time)
There is nothing better than a good one, and nothing worse than a bad one!
Don't overcook the oysters, and keep the oil hot!

Oysters are very easy to fry, and very easy to fry improperly. Note the only 
underlined sentence in the recipe. Do not overcook.

Notes on ingredients 

Two eggs, two tablespoons cream, teaspoon salt,
1/8 teaspoon pepper -- simple enough.

The recipe also calls for...


Oysters, even if a little mangled in shucking,
lined up on ice to do my bidding.

Oysters. Here is a seafood that evokes feelings of fear, love, passion and ignorance. There is a lot to know about oysters, and a lot to know about handling them. 

Luckily for us, we only have to know a few basic facts, and depend on the fish man for everything else. There are lots of different kinds of oysters, and the taste differs wildly from one part of the country to another.

Our oysters are native to the Gulf Coast.

I’ll spare you the encylopedia entry on my old friend Cassostrea virginica, and just remind you there is a lot to know about oysters. If you have an inquiring mind, here is a link to the Brittannica.

For an fascinating tale of Oysters see the Tuscaloosa Times article by Ben Windham, 

Unless it helps you get in touch with your inner “shell and bird” person, you don’t have to worry about where the oyster comes from, if you buy from a reputable source. Oyster reefs are regulated by the several states along the Gulf Coast.

 If you stick your head into a seafood truck -- which would not be a good idea, given the value of what’s inside -- you might see big burlap sacks stacked on a pallet. The truck is refrigerated to keep the oysters cool. What’s inside the sack looks, to the uninitiated, like a pile of shell-like rubble. The oysters may be in clumps, with a few distinct single oysters in the mix. The outside of the shells looks a little nasty. Inside is a live oyster.

Sacks of oysters, with tags attached
A system of tagging lets the oyster producer know where the oyster was harvested and when. This information is retained to make sure the oyster comes from a reef where the water quality is suitable for production of a safe-to-eat product. 

Oysters piled on an oyster boat. The oysterman on the right
is about to put the oyster into a sack -- a new clean one at that.
The oyster is harvested (usually with a kind of giant kitchen tong) and placed on a boat.

 The boat unloads the oysters at a packing house.
 In this process an “oyster tag” showing where and when the oyster was harvested is attached to the sack which now contains the oyster.

Oyster tongs. The "tonger"puts them on the bottom.
 rakes up and then pulls up the oysters. Never, ever
make one of these guys angry. A frightening moment in 
my life was when my fearless father told an oyster tonger
he was a  "stupid bastard" to hold some opinion he'd
expressed.  The oysterman never batted an eye, and 
referred to daddy as "Mr. Jimmy" throughout the rest
of the conversation. Of course, they parted as friends.
Daddy was a pretty good talker and demanded respect.

The tongs come in different sizes, denominated by how many "teeth" on the tong. From the small "nippers" to big 24 tooth rakes, you have to be a real man to tong oysters all day. Daddy's business used to build and sell oyster rakes. The teeth and "tooth-bar" they were welded to had to be spring steel to resist the strain of clawing the oysters from the bottom. Oysters exist on naturally occurring (ideally) “reefs,” which are areas where oysters have grown for many, many years. A naturally occurring reef can’t simply be replaced by dumping new shell onto a destroyed reef.
Once a natural reef is destroyed -- it is hard to replace.  If you want to get technical on the subject see  .

 Otherwise, know that industrial and other pollution killed oysters on some of the reefs in Mobile Bay in the 1940s and 1950s, and before they could be re-established, the state allowed huge masses of shell to be dredged up for construction material.  The oysters were dead anyway, right? Before the oysters could re-populate the natural habitat, the 1,000-year-old reefs were destroyed. In their places, shell has been dumped overboard in an effort to rebuild them.
A natural reef on Mobile Bay, uncovered at low tide.

Dredge  the shells up, 1970s.
A typical oyster shell dredge on the Gulf Coast
from the 1960s. These things sucked up oyster
reefs and used them to build roads. The calcium
in the oyster shell reacts with road building clay
to make a nice sub-base for road construction.
A natural resource and industry were destroyed
in the process.
Unfortunately, a few barge-loads of shell don’t replace a naturally occurring oyster reef. Maybe it will work, 
but it sure would be nice to go back to the mid 1950s
and stop the destruction of the natural reef.

Dump the shells back, 1990s. Shells are pushed
overboard with fire hoses in an effort to rebuild
oyster reefs destroyed by shell dredges. 

The oyster is sent to market as a shell oyster, for shucking in an oyster bar or at home, or as a shucked product. Shucking houses employ skilled “shuckers” (no kidding) who are paid by the volume of oysters freed from the shell. 

The oysters are also graded by size. 
Small 63+ per pint
Standard 38-63 per pint
Select 26-38 per pint
Extra Selects 20-26 per pint
Counts Fewer than 20 per pint

This is the meaning of “select” in the cookbook. 
Most of the oysters you’ll see fried are Selects. When you purchase oyster “meats” already shucked, the size will be stamped on the lid. Be careful about buying oyster meats that are pasteurized or heat treated; they just don’t taste like much. Also, there are West Coast farm-raised oysters available everywhere. I have found they lack the subtle flavor of Gulf Coast oysters. The ones I have tried also looked like they were opened with a lawn-mower. An oyster which has been cut up in the opening process does not fry well. 

Shucking your own

Sure, you can shuck your own oysters. I think that is the way to eat them raw. Go back to Jaques Pepin's book and read what he has to say. Understand that the perfect single oyster that he uses in the book is not easy to find. Unless you take the precaution of buying ready to shuck singles you will likely face some oyster version of Megalon the Oyster Terror in a clump of impossibly tangled shells. If you want to shuck your own, and are not a professional shucker, buy washed singles. Call your fish-man. You should be able to buy 1/4 bushel boxes of ready to shuck singles. This will make your life easier. 

Here are a few difficult steps to shucking oysters, and a brief video on the subject: 

1) Get a oyster knife. I have an old Carvel Hall carbon steel knife and a Dexter Russell stainless knife. I am so ham-fisted at shucking oysters that either works about as well as the other.

2) Don't shuck toward your open hand! I don't care what you saw the shucker at a good oyster bar do, you keep that knife pointed somewhere else. There is nothing worse (OK, nuclear war and non-stop disco would be worse) than stabbing yourself in the palm with an oyster knife. Instant infection!

3) Go for the hinge end! Don't be macho. When I was a child I knew men who could open oysters from the lip end with a pocket knife -- and do it faster than you could eat them. You can't do that, and neither can I. Get in touch with your inner candy-ass and open from the hinge end unless and until you get to be a pro at this. 

4) Keep the oysters cold, and clean up the shell. If the shell is nasty, scrub it off. The outside of a room temp oyster shell is bacterial nirvana. Keep the oyster cold and clean. Don't take a chance on transferring that case of diarrhea-on-the-hoof to the oyster.

5) Don't get blasted and try to shuck oysters. Some primal force draws men to shell oysters and beer. Even if you don't say "Hey, watch this!", a drunk, a box of singles and an oyster knife are a bad combination. If you don't stab yourself, you may become frustrated enough in your drunken rage to start opening oysters with a pipe wrench or claw hammer. That's just not right.

6) For fried oysters, let the pros shuck the oysters.

When you seek oysters in the grocery, look for a store that packs the plastic oyster containers in ice so only the lid is showing. It is an old seafood proverb; if you can see the product through the ice -- you don’t have enough ice. The ice should come all the way up the container. 

When you get your oysters home, take the same care. Put the container in ice in a big bowl and put it in the icebox, unless you are going to cook right then. Temperature control is important!  

Cracker meal or yellow corn meal

The kind of meal you use makes a big, big difference in the texture of the finished product. Below, we'll cook oysters with both "cracker meal" and yellow corn meal. 

The "Oyster Fry" corn meal and very finely ground yellow corn meal is the traditional approach. For this recipe, I use a coarser ground corn meal. It is available in that most elegant of specialty grocery stores, Winn-Dixie, and marketed as "Dixie Lilly" corn meal. It is just as good as some expensive stuff for making polenta, and gives a fried oyster a nice texture that stands up well.

The "cracker meal" used here consist of --- crackers. I just crush saltine crackers to a coarse meal.


Now Let's Cook!
Notes on technique

The text from Gulf Coast Gourmet is in red. My notes are in black.

Drain Oysters and lay them on a clean white cloth or absorent paper, dabbing them gently so as to remove all moisture possible. 
Don't miss this important step. I've seen folks take oysters, wet with the liquid that comes with them in the container, roll them in meal and attempt to fry. This breading won't stick well and will "puff" off of the oyster. Lay them all out on paper towels on a sheet pan and pat them dry. The idea here is to be organized and able to move quickly.

Oysters, patted dry and ready to fry, egg on
the left, cracker meal above and corn meal
below. The oysters go from egg to meal to frying
in one motion. I may let them sit in the egg but, I
never let them sit in the meal
Beat two eggs with cream in a bowl. Season with sale and pepper.
How hard can that be? (My wife's distant cousin executed the instruction "separate two eggs" by putting one on each end of the kitchen table, so I will explain) I have seasoned the meal rather than the egg, but can't tell if it makes the oysters any better. Beat the egg and cream with a fork  so no distinct white or yellow shows.

Dip oysters into this mixture and then gently roll in meal.
Here is one of the only techniques that has ever impressed either of my children. The very simple "wet hand/dry hand" technique of breading and frying. Simply, pick up the oyster with your left (wet) hand, and place it in the egg mixture. After making sure it is completely coated with egg, shake off the excess and drop it in the meal. Use your right (dry) hand to toss a little meal on the oyster and then roll it in the meal. Pick up the coated oyster with your dry hand and put it in the oil. When James and Sarah were small, and helped with this operation, they would carp "I know, Daddy, I know. Wet hand, dry hand, wet hand, dry hand." Later, when some television star cook did the same thing, they were duly impressed. Impressed or not, it keeps your hands from becoming a gooey mass as you work.

 Fry in hot oil, turning only once. There is a Gulf Coast Gourmet direction. "Fry in hot oil" Everybody known just how to do that, right?  The directions also say "If frying in deep fat." I always fry oysters in deep fat. Unless you are pan-fying rather than deep fat frying for some other reason, deep fat the is way to go. We used a deep, heavy straight-sided pan here. It holds plenty of oil, which is very important to have a sufficient mass of oil to keep the oil hot when adding oysters. Heat the oil so it passes 350F on your thermometer. I use a Thermopen, which is the best thermometer out there and one of the most useful things in the kitchen.

There is a lot of information out there on cooking oils. The basic idea is this: Different fats break down and become useless for frying at different temps. These are generally referred to as "smoke points". As you can see, we are frying from 350F to 375F. So, pick an oil that works. Refined peanut and refined soybean oil both have a 450F smoke point, so both are a good choice. When the oil turns dark, get rid of it. It has started to degrade, and will make your oysters greasy! You can guard against this by controlling the heat to keep the oil from exceeding 375F.

Casamentos The Temple of Oyster Frying
on Magazine St. in New Orleans. They fry
in dutch ovens over the stove. You know because
 you pass through the kitchen on the way
 to the rest-rooms.
 When the oil passes 350, add the oysters. Don't be afraid of the hot oil. Sure, it is as dangerous as an angry cobra, but only if you lose control. Place the oysters in the oil from just above the surface; don't drop them in from a high altitude and splash oil on yourself. If you don't like putting your hand close to the oil, put them in your fry ladle (like the one illustrated, $2 at the Asian grocery) and lower them into the oil like that. Put no more than three or four oysters in the oil at a time. If you dump in a lot of them at once, the water in the oyster boiling out will cause the pot to boil over -- bad magic. If that does happen, don't run out of the room. Turn the heat down immediately.  Don't ever try to pick up or move a pot of hot, hot oil. OSHA, NASA, FEMA, the FAA, FCC and FDIC require me to tell you that you should always have a fire extinguisher at hand. Take it from someone who set two kitchens on fire while in grade school; a fire extinguisher is a good idea.
High sided pot, fry ladle, rack for draining
the oysters. Frying three at a time. It takes
fewer than 10-minutes to fry a pint of oysters.

Remove when they are golden brown. If frying oysters in deep fat, when the oysters rise to the top remove them. Do not overcook.
"Golden Brown" is one of those cooking terms like "seal in the juices", I don't know what it means! When the oyster pop to the surface of the oil, roll them over with your ladle. By the time you've rolled all three or four over, the first is ready to come out. The underlining in the recipe tells you to beware of the common error. They cook very quickly. An overcooked oyster is a waste of money, and suited only for sling-shot ammunition.

Put in only enough oysters at a time so as not the chill the hot oil.
"Enough." I wonder what that means? Three or four at a time is plenty, because they cook so quickly. That is why you must have everything organized and ready to go. If you have help, let them bread and you fry. (Children are good for something).

Take out and drain on absorbent paper.
Although this will cause my sister to drop to the floor in a fit of apoplexy, I must disagree with my mother. Drain the oysters on a rack over a sheet pan. I think putting them on paper just holds the oil next to the oyster. If the oil is hot (and it will be!) they will not absorb much oil anyway. I always season them, while they are very hot,
 with a big pinch of kosher salt at this point. (Tiny pinch=thumb and forefinger, pinch=two fingers, big pinch=three fingers. Now you know)

A simple (chipped) platter of fried oysters. 
 Serve at once with tartar sauce and lemon wedges.
Doctor them up, if you must. But I like them just as they are.

You should, however,  tinker with the breading ingredient here if you like. Panko crumbs give one texture and flavor, seasoned breadcrumbs another. Put out several types of breading and try new things. If it's really good, serve it. If it does not work, you still have to eat it. Oysters are too precious to throw away!

A wonderful and kind (to say nothing of beautiful) friend from my youth reminded me of the time I  cooked oysters for poet and writer Eugene Walter

It was  20 years ago. Walter suggested poaching oysters in heavy cream and then garnishing them with well drained capers. It is a great and simple dish from an interesting guy. This has nothing to do with Gulf Coast Gourmet, but it shows what a versatile gift oysters are.

Next, Shrimp. The undisputed king of seafoods.

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