Oysters Rockefeller

The threat to a unique New Orleans culinary tradition is one measure of the Gulf of Mexico tragedy, says Jim Gabour.
Jim Gabour
16 June 2010

A dual update on the oil-spill catastrophe in the Gulf of Mexico:

“Panama City Beach, Florida - A piece of wreckage from the deepsea rig that exploded in April has washed up on a beach in Florida about 190 miles from the site of the disaster.

Bay County Sheriff Deputy Ray Maulbeck was working beach patrol Saturday morning when he came upon the stainless steel tank that had some oil oozing from it, along with barnacles and sea growth attached to it. The Coast Guard and state environmental officials were called in to investigate, and they took the piece away.

Maulbeck says the part had markings that identified it as having come from the Deepwater Horizon rig” (“Rig wreckage washes ashore”, Associated Press, 12 June 2010)

“Two miles east of where I sit thumb-writing  - across the namesake inlet - the faded decadence of Panama City Beach rolls on for miles…” (“Paradise”, 8 June 2010)

So the nightmare is finally there. 

Some remnants of the spill have now been found to the east of Inlet Beach, Florida, where I spent the last week watching for oil on the beaches where five species of endangered turtles have begun nesting.  When I drove back to New Orleans on 11 June 2010, I still had hope: the shore was still intact, an endless stretch of perfect sugar-sand beach was still unstained. Within weeks, if not days, tiny hatchlings will be making their way from Inlet Beach into a Gulf of Mexico already full of predators, a hard environment where only one in a hundred turtles normally make it to a first birthday. And now it seems even that survival-rate will be lowered again.

The life source

The day I returned home and opened a newspaper, headlines announced that there are already other, less visually romantic, but vital nonetheless, casualties. 

We have lost our oysters.

P& J Oysters, a 134-year-old family business, and America’s oldest oyster processor and distributor, closed its doors on 10 June 2010 after the day’s shucking was done. The elevated platforms in the rear of the building, where a dozen shuckers stood opening the thick shells every day for over a century, were hosed down a last time, and the space shuttered.

The last of P&J’s prime oyster-beds, and the property of dozens of families who owned and maintained them for generations, have been polluted and poisoned with oil. Oysters from the few inferior beds that remain active have tripled and quadrupled in price. P&J decided to cut their losses. Their usual oystermen, accustomed to the hugely intense labor of dredging for, cleaning and sacking the heavy mollusks, can no longer go into the marshes. The oil is too thick, and the shellfish dying.

The Sunseri brothers, Sal and Al, own the business, and are descended from the original line, started in 1876 by John Popich, an immigrant from Croatia. He was joined by Joseph Jurisch around 1900. Thus, the P & J. Alfred Sunseri, grandfather to the current Sunseris, married Popich’s cousin, joined the firm soon after Jurisch, and in 1921 bought the building still housing the operation at Toulouse and Rampart streets on the northern edge of the French Quarter. 

Amidst all the political correctness and governmental apologising going back and forth between the United States and Britain over the BP spill, Sal Sunseri did not, in his statement to the press on 11 June, mention a distant but now-ironic connection.  

His family-business’s building was once used as General Andrew Jackson’s stables during the battle of New Orleans (23 December 1814 - 26 January 1815) - a bloody, month-long, and completely futile waste of life, and the last encounter of the war of 1812 between Britain and the United States. The Treaty of Ghent had actually ended the war on 24 December, but word did not get to the British until after they had suffered massive losses, their 10,000- man army was decimated, and the force had regrouped to attack Mobile Bay.

Jackson, originally from Florida, went on to become the seventh president of the United States. No mention is made in any of his numerous biographies to note any predilection for Louisiana shellfish.

But oysters have been part of and party to politics from early days. Oysters Rockefeller was created in 1899 at New Orleans’s Antoine’s restaurant as a result of a shortage of French snails. Local oysters - speculatively from P&J’s, which is located just around the corner - were substituted for Gallic escargots. Antoine’s, founded in 1840, is the country's oldest family-run restaurant, and didn’t stay in business by mere good fortune. The Alciatore family, who owned Antoine’s, knew politics, and named Oysters Rockefeller after John D Rockefeller, the richest American at the time, for the richness of the sauce.

The dead zone

John D Rockefeller’s money came hugely from petroleum.

The Louisiana oyster gained international notoriety after President Franklin D Roosevelt dined on Oysters Rockefeller at Antoine's in 1937. Mayor Robert Maestri, who spoke English in what is locally know as a “Yat” accent (“Where y’at, baby” is the common greeting) commented to Roosevelt: "How you like dem erstas?"  The national press transcribed Maestri's accent exactly as it sounded, and “Erstas” Rockefeller made news worldwide. 

Oysters have long been an integral part of the calendar of life and daily living in New Orleans and south Louisiana. Oyster-dressing at thanksgiving, oyster stew at Christmas and new year, char-grilled oysters and fried oyster po-boys “dressed” solely with melted butter and hot sauce in the spring, and my own favorite for the bacchanal of carnival, oyster-shooters. For this traditional breakfast drink, shot glasses are filled three-quarters with a supremely spicy vodka bloody mary mix, and then a fat fresh oyster is dropped to the bottom of the glass; served with a thin lemon wedge and knocked back at a single gulp and chew.

Another extravagant, but ultimately perfect breakfast involved my personal favourite of the many varied P&J oysters: those from Chinaman’s Bayou.  They were sweet and salty with a lovely coppery after-taste, much like Veuve Clicquot champagne, with which they paired admirably, both deeply chilled.  The key word in the last sentence is “were”.  They are no more.

I can remember watching my father eat raw oysters as a child, and wondering how he could put the slimy things in his mouth. Years later, myself now also addicted to the tasty bivalves, I took him to the legendary Tyler’s Jazz & Oyster Bar on Magazine Street, where from noon to 2pm and midnight to 2am, oysters were sold for ten cents apiece. When we left, nine dozen later, the owner was in tears, his profit-margin erased. My father, however, was in heaven, and asked if we could return that night for an encore, to very little positive reinforcement from the owner.

As a rite of adulthood, I first bought my own oyster-shucking accoutrements thirty years ago:  a sharp-pointed but sturdy shucking knife, heavy rubber-and-steel-reinforced gloves and a “lead”, which is a curved piece of metal meant to hold the oyster in place while the knife pries it open.

There is an old saying in New Orleans, dating from the 1800s:  “Oysters ‘R’ in season”.  Which meant that the months from September to April, months with an “r” in their spelling,  were best for eating the shellfish. From roots in those early days, the admonition against summer consumption of oysters was generated because of a lack of refrigeration and the lack of capability to get the oysters to market quickly enough in the heat. Those restrictions have now been lifted, and I have eaten some of the saltiest, best oysters of my life in the summer months.

However, in Louisiana in summer 2010, oysters R not in season. And may well never be again.

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