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Oyster Cult

For Marylanders, oysters are a Thanksgiving staple

Sam Holden

By Rafael Alvarez | Posted 11/25/2009

"My husband says I eat stuff that would make a billy goat puke," Lorna Meyerson Sotoloff says.

Let the record show that Sotoloff's husband is allergic to onions, is cool to crustaceans, and grew up in Philadelphia. And Lorna--Woodlawn High School Class of '77--is a Baltimore girl through-and-through and, as such, eats sections of lobster other people throw away, the "squiggly parts" of a steamed crab (the "mustard" and guts), and, of course, oysters.

Especially oysters. And especially at Thanksgiving.

"I'll have about 10 to 12 people for dinner this year," says Sotoloff, an ultrasound technician at Mercy Hospital who currently lives in Reisterstown. "If I didn't have oysters on the menu, they'd be sad." Not disappointed, frustrated or angry in the way that only relatives can get over the holidays, but sad.

Between plates of raw oysters at Cross Street Market, long retired newspaperman and South Baltimore epicure Jim Keat says he, "doesn't know anyone foolish enough" to ruin an oyster by cooking it. But Sotoloff is serving a Thanksgiving chowder this year that she thinks might teach the ink-stained dog a new trick.

"I was thumbing through my Thanksgiving folders and came across the recipe," says the bivalve buff who buys her oysters by the pint--$10.99 a jar--from the Blue Point Crab House in Owings Mills. "Its sort of a combination oyster stew and corn chowder. It's good because I can make it ahead of time. And I'll make an oyster pie while my husband cooks the turkey and works on his sweet potatoes."

And while the oyster dishes mark the Sotoloff Thanksgiving as a Free State affair, a side dish from Lorna's childhood will make it indelibly Baltimore: kielbasa with sauerkraut. But unlike the oysters, few in her extended clan--foodies known to take pictures of groaning plates--would be sad if it went missing one year.

The Sotoloffs have a son, 12-year-old-Harrison, who appears to straddle his parents' palates. The kid is a big fan of rockfish and though he won't eat an oyster raw, he does enjoy them cooked. Lorna is confident, however, that he will slurp in time. "It's a Maryland thing," she says.

Sotoloff learned to slurp while going to bull and oyster roasts with her family as a kid. "I like oysters steamed, stewed, cooked, fried, raw with sauce, and naked," Sotoloff says. "My favorite is a recipe from an old boyfriend, a gourmet. He poached oysters with champagne and cream. Pretty decadent."

There is one way, however, that Sotoloff has never eaten an oyster--an old-fashioned, most unpredictable way that isn't encountered too often these days: a freshly shucked raw oyster accompanied by a tiny parasite known as the "pea crab."

"Oh my God," Sotoloff says. "I know nothing about this oyster crab."

The Pinnotheres ostreum, the oyster crab or pea crab, lives inside the shells of certain Atlantic coast bivalves and is particularly abundant in the Chesapeake Bay. At less than an inch across--with a jagged stripe on its tiny shell--the pea crab resembles a spider, according to lifetime Eastern Shore resident Joyce Clarke Heiser, an elementary-school bookkeeper.

"When I was a kid, we had lots of oysters growing up in Box Iron," the 64-year-old Heiser says of her hometown, about halfway between Snow Hill and Girdletree in Worcester County. "It was a real treat when Dad would open them up and there'd be a little, tiny crab there." It was, Heiser says, "crunchy."

It's a century-old story that oysters aren't as plentiful as they once were. Billions filled the Chesapeake in the 19th century. The rape of the bay--keenly repugnant when you consider that most oysters were shipped to restaurants in New York--is lyrically documented in William W. Warner's 1976 gem, Beautiful Swimmers.

A yardstick for how much over-harvesting has depleted the local oyster--despite late summer reports of a comeback on artificial reefs--is that Heiser only pays a dollar less for a pint on the Eastern Shore than Lorna Sotoloff does in suburban Baltimore. There used to be oyster packing houses in Girdletree when Heiser was growing up after World War II, but no more.

Still, a dollar more or less won't keep the delicacy from joining bowls of mashed potatoes and cranberry sauce on Heiser's table this time of year. "I'm not crazy about oyster stuffing, but we'll do some fried oysters around Thanksgiving," says Heiser, whose brother, Bob Clarke, a former chancellor of state colleges in Vermont, brings Cabot cheese and maple syrup to the family's gathering. In exchange, he expects oysters and soft crabs waiting for him in his sister's freezer.

"I fry my oysters in a light egg wash with just a little milk, salt and pepper, and some cracker meal," Heiser says. "We eat them off the plate or on sandwiches."

One aspect of enjoying oysters is in play for Sotoloff, but not Heiser. According to Jewish law, all shellfish is treif--like pork--and not allowed. "Obviously, I don't keep kosher," Sotoloff says. "The reason I shouldn't be eating seafood isn't [religion], it's cholesterol."

Oysters a la Bennett

"Bennett is my old boyfriend, the gourmet cook," Lorna Meyerson Sotoloff says. " My husband doesn't get jealous about this recipe because he doesn't like oysters so I never make it for him."

1 pint shucked oysters with liquid or drained, depending on amount of sauce you want.
Enough champagne to cover oysters in bottom of pan.
1/2 pint fresh cream

Poach oysters in pan with mixture of champagne and cream for approximately 12 minutes.
Pour oysters and champagne and cream sauce into a greased, oblong casserole pan and cover with shaved Jarlsberg cheese.
Bake at 350 degree for 12 to 15 minutes (enough to melt the cheese.)
Serve with appetizers and French bread as a dipping sauce.

Lorna's Oyster Pie

1 store bought or homemade pie crust.
1 pint shucked oysters.
4 cups oyster crackers, crumbled
1 cup of fresh cream

Bake crust, let cool.
Drain oyster, save liquid.
Grease bottom of pie crust with butter.
Layer oysters, then crumbled crackers, then oysters.
Top final layer of cracker crumbs with a mixture of oyster liquid, cream, salt and, pepper.
Dot top of pie with sliced butter.
Bake at 350 degrees for 25 to 30 minutes.
Yields four to six slices.

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