Brave New World: Oysters and Coming Home
When I was a kid, I was terrified of oysters. Not all of us children raised on the Chesapeake Bay are born with an innate desire to slurp down a brackish bivalve. When you’re little, those ancient beauties seem alien, otherworldly—even gross. I left the half-shells to my parents and stuck to grilled cheese. As far as I was concerned, those slime balls were not for me.
But as I grew older, I eventually inherited my mother’s adventurous appetite, and while I didn’t boldly go where no woman had gone before, I tiptoed into an obsession with seafood, thanks in part to my mother’s oyster fritter.
Well, it’s not exactly her oyster fritter. As in all good Chesapeake recipes, the most dog-eared Eastern Shore staples are passed down or pilfered from grandmothers, crazy aunts, colleagues, or church friends. Mom’s oyster fritter came from her favorite restaurant, the now-shuttered Brooks Tavern, located in the old grain mill in Chestertown, Maryland, and helmed by chef Kevin McKinney and his wife, Barbara, who now run a small grocery-cum-cooking school in Kennedyville. As time went on, she tweaked a measurement here, threw in a few mushrooms there, and even topped it all off with my family’s all-time favorite accouterment: an ooey-gooey fried egg. My sister must have eaten a thousand before my 21st birthday.
But with a batter of flour, a basting of butter, and a sprinkle of candied citrus, I bravely began to eat oysters, too, slowly allowing myself the pleasures of their pungent brine through a salty-sweet layer of lemon cream. Eventually, I came to love them so much that I finally moved onto the raw thing. Today, I even consider myself an ostreaphile.
Mom still pulls out the oyster fritter on special occasions—when the leaves have fallen to the forest floor and we’re all finally home again. She pulls out her cast iron and throws in what seems like a few hundred pads of butter. She zests a lemon and fills her tiny kitchen with delicious smells and laughter. That first bite tastes like growing up, like coming home, which are both so fleeting. It’s officially winter, with frost on the fields and a nip in the air. But our bellies, and souls, are warm.