Editor’s note: This story was originally published Jan. 12, 2015.
Got oysters on your mind? T’is the season.
Oysters basically launched the Mississippi Coast’s seafood industry in the late 19th century, back in the day when acres and acres and acres of oyster beds awaited culling.
The 21st century harvests pale to the early bounty that caused French explorer Iberville in 1699 to describe them as “mighty fine.” Despite their smaller numbers today, oysters happily remain in the seafood spotlight, most recently evidenced by the naming of a new Biloxi baseball team, the Shuckers.
Oysters are one of those foods that bring strong reactions. Either you hate them or you love them, with little middle ground. Detractors usually point to the “slimy” texture and such detractors likely don’t eat okra, either.
Today, however, is not about modern folk debating the goodness or badness of devouring oysters. Instead, we turn to Katherine Key Cavendar to do that for us. More than a century ago she wrote an article for The Daily Herald, an earlier iteration of this newspaper.
Herald editors didn’t explain who Cavendar was, but her words show a sense of humor and knowledge of the Gulf Coast. Much of her article dated Dec. 19, 1909, centers on oysters, and we excerpt it here. I hope you get smiles reading this, as did I.
Cavendar’s sociable oysters
“Oysters are not very inspiring things to write about, but they have their good points, likewise their blue points, and they are sociable little bivalves, too.
“One day not long ago a rusty iron hoop was picked up near an old post out in the water near the Biloxi shore and had 206 oysters attached to it, which goes to show that the oyster does not believe in going away by himself and flocking all alone. He gathers his friends and kin-folks close around him — large or small fry, it’s all the same to him. They are welcome to hang on to his hoop, stump or whatever he organizes his social settlement on.
“Oysters are good. Whether they are moral or not, no one can say, and their religion, there is nothing definite known, but from their presence for much water, they might be though Baptists, and hard shell at that.
“Sometimes an oyster contains a pearl, and the pearl, it is said, is formed by a grain of sand that gets into the shell and irritates the oyster into presenting it with a mother of pearl covering — so pearls are formed by much suffering, just as the small feet of the Chinese ladies are formed and the small waists for the ladies who are not Chinese.
“An oyster should be dressed when eaten, but you must never eat one with his overcoat on — it would not be good for you.
“The chile-er he is dressed the warmer he is. Sometimes he is fried — a good way to fry him is to give him an egg bath and dip him in powdered crackers — then drop him into boiling lard for 60 seconds. You need not massage him unless you want to. If you do, use your teeth.
“There are several other ways of immortalizing the oyster. Some people scollop him, not with scissors but with bread crumbs.
“Then ... there is such a thing as an oyster stew. And there are panned oysters. None of these treatments will spoil him, but he is liable to get “hot” when you administer them.
“Then there is such a thing as an oyster loaf. It is something that married men bring home the nights they are out late without permission.
“And, there are oyster cocktails. No, not with lemon and sugar and whiskey. If you like that mixture you must eat the oysters first for it would be ‘cheap sport’ to poison the oysters before swallowing them!
“There are no doubt lady oysters and gentlemen oysters, but they taste just alike in a stew, as the gentlemen oyster doesn’t smoke — tobacco ... and at other times, like the Eskimos, you can’t tell the ‘other from which’ as their overcoats are as much alike.”
Kat Bergeron, a veteran feature writer specializing in Gulf Coast history and sense of place, is retired from the Sun Herald. She writes the Mississippi Coast Chronicles column as a freelance correspondent. Reach her at BergeronKat@gmail.com or at Southern Possum Tales, P.O. Box 33, Barboursville VA 22923.