Friday, November 02, 2018

The One With Oysters for Eight

Continuing on our journey of food memories, we return to my childhood. Like this photo of the fried oysters? There's a recipe at the end!

A thoughtful reader suggested that it might be fun to know about dinner time in our household when I was a child. Well, we had a large table and a parquet wood floor. About once a meal someone spilled milk, which then threatened to sink into the many cracks in the wood floor, so one of us would immediately get out the towel to soak up the milk and another would head for the mop and bucket on the cellar stairs to mop up the spill in a way that would eliminate future spoiled milk smell.

When we were very young, my Dad sat at one end of the table and my Mom at the end closest to the kitchen. In general the older children would sit at the end near my Dad but it changed over time so I don't have a strong sense of any on particular place being 'mine'. We all had to be home by dinner time and it was always the same time (5 or 6 pm - I forget which but I suspect some sibling will remember). We were expected home for dinner unless there was a dire excuse or we were at scout camp or something similar. Since none of us played for a sports team, the only times we were gone were usually when we had to baby sit at dinner time and later for another family and that was when we were at least 12.

Here is a photo from when we were all adults. The door leads into the kitchen. We were served a small quantity of wine from when we were teens. My Dad felt that it was a good idea to learn to handle alcohol at home and not to get messed up with it when you left home. Seemed to work pretty well as far as I can tell.

Dinner time was a time to converse, and we were expected to not hog the conversation. My parents both enjoyed discussing current events so I began reading the morning Washington Post paper pretty early so that I could join in. My Mom was very interested in politics and eventually became the district Democratic party precinct chair. We also talked about what was going on in our lives. Unfortunately we were also allowed free hand at critiquing each other. Unkind comments built up over time which shaped me in many ways. Pretty sure the same happened to many of my siblings.

The food always went around the table in one direction (counter clockwise?). We were expected to eat whatever we put on our plate and to have some of everything. There were no special diets or anything like that, so no one had anything cooked just for them, although a few changes were made when we found out that my older sister had dietary allergies. In general we had a lot of food cooked from scratch, frozen things like frozen vegetables and plenty of canned things like canned beans and canned tuna and canned soups. There was often dessert, but many times it was fruit. I especially liked stewed prunes the way my Mom made them with vanilla.

As you might imagine, getting enough food for 8-10 people on the table all at once was a challenge. Fortunately we took turns setting the table and clearing the table, putting away leftovers, and washing the dishes. I think that learning to be part of the family by having chores fairly early was a set of life skills that has been extremely valuable, not only for the actual skills learned, but for learning to do a job well, on time, and while working well with others. I learned to take pride in my efforts, too.

Here is a photo taken in the dining room when we were all much older. As you can see, it's not a huge room. Still, a lot of fun things happened in the dining room over the years.

After the next to the last child in the family was born, when I was 10 years old, it was decided that the three oldest children (ages 10, 11, and 12), would make dinner once a week. My poor mother had and infant to care for and also had to teach each of us to cook and get everything on the table while it was still the temperature it was supposed to be. She was a trooper.

This followed a disaster of a Thanksgiving where Mom was in the hospital and the three of us tried to make the full meal and ended up with burnt peas and lumpy gravy and cold mashed potatoes, among other things. The state of the kitchen was the worst...I think we used every pot and pan and lid in the house. The best part of the meal was the jellied cranberry sauce because all it required was opening both ends of the can and sliding the jelly onto a small plate! We tried, we really did, but what a meal to start with!

Eventually all Mom's effort to teach us to cook and have everything on the table at the same time, with hot things hot and cold things cold and the kitchen tidied up as we went (more or less) paid off because it meant that Mom had fewer nights to cook. Another advantage is that we all learned to cook, even my brothers. My parents were unusual at that time in history because they didn't believe in mens work and womens work, as so many did, but had us all learn whatever work was needed.

Because I was slow at doing my homework, my night became Friday night. No homework at all that night. If there was any I usually did it Sunday night. No procrastination there.

Being an observing Catholic family, Friday night meant no meat. I learned how to make interesting things like fried fish and hush puppies, salmon loaf supreme, and shrimp etouffee. One night Dad came home with two quart canning jars packed with fresh shucked oysters. There was a great fishmonger in Georgetown so if he had a meeting in DC he sometimes stopped and picked up oysters or other fish.

The first time it was oysters I had a terrible time. The favored way to prepare oysters was to fry them. Getting them ready to fry meant dipping each one in seasoned flour, then into beaten egg, then into bread crumbs. Doing enough for two people (about a dozen oysters) is no big deal, but enough for 9 or 10 people is awful. After the first dozen my hands and the dipping forks were covered in this gunk made up of oyster juice, flour, egg and crumbs. By the time the last one was breaded I was thoroughly sick of oysters. Then the frying took forever! Since I never knew when the oysters would magically arrive, I had usually begun preparing something else for dinner, too. Good thing I loved eating oysters.

You would think that all of this would have soured me on fried oysters, but, no, I still love to eat them. I just let someone else cook them. Fortunately a local restaurant makes great fried oysters. Maybe I'll see if Sweetie wants to eat out and go there.

Here is my brother Phil's recipe for Fried Oysters. He makes them with his sons, fondly known as 'the Pirates'. First photo is of Mom and the Pirates, then Phil and one of them then the other. These photos were taken when they were young. They are grown now, but I love to remember them this way, too.

Phil and the Pirates Fried Oysters (updated version)

1 jar oysters for two - four people - buy as many jars as you will need to serve your group
1 cup flour
salt and pepper to taste
2 eggs
¼ cup water or milk
2 cups fine dry bread crumbs or Panko
Vegetable oil or shortening...enough to come up
1 inch on your frying pan when hot

Drain the oysters in a strainer or colander. Discard the drained liquid or reserve to flavor oyster stew.

Prepare the breading: In one bowl combine the flour, salt and pepper. In another bowl beat the eggs with the water.
(Note: the Pirates use milk in their egg wash and make it an eggy wash, not so much liquid.) In a pie pan or similar wide shallow bowl place the fine dry bread crumbs (plain) or Panko crumbs. Use more if more jars of oysters are used and increase the flour mix and egg dip, too.

Line a sheet pan with waxed paper or parchment paper.

Using a fork or spoon, transfer an oyster to the flour bowl and dredge with flour. Transfer to the egg mixture bowl and coat with the egg mixture, then transfer to the bread crumbs or Panko and coat with that. Lift the oyster up to dislodge excess bread crumbs or Panko and place the breaded oyster on the prepared sheet pan.

Repeat this process until all of the oyster have been breaded. Chill the oysters for at least 15 minutes, up to 30 minutes to set the breading.

Slowly heat the vegetable oil or shortening in a frying pan to about 1 inch depth (the Pirates might have it deeper, more like 2-3 inches), until oil is very hot, just shy of smoking. When the oil is hot, fry the oysters, about 6 - 8 at a time, turning to the other side when the first side is golden brown.

When golden on both sides, remove from the oil with slotted spoon or tongs to a tray lined with absorbent paper. Add the next batch of oysters, then transfer the ones on the absorbent paper to a cookie sheet in a warm oven to keep them warm. Put them in to fry at intervals so you don’t cool the oil.

When all are fried, mound on a platter and serve with lemon and catsup, cocktail sauce or chili sauce.

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