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.


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

Oysters. Here is a seafood that invokes 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. 

I’ll spare you the encylopedia entry on my old friend ostrea, 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.  
( )

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.
An oysterman usually has arms like a gorilla, 
a big gorilla. 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.
 They parted as friends,  but I don't know how.

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. My father'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. Even if you don't say "Hey, watch this!", a drunk, a box of singles and an oyster knife are a bad combination. Even 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.

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!  

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