Lately, I’ve been reading M.F. K. Fisher’s Consider the Oyster. Raw, cooked, dangerous, and delicious, Fisher celebrates this humble bivalve in glorious prose. In her chapter “The Well-Dressed Oyster,” she surveys the triumphs and pitfalls of cooking and seasoning oysters. It’s worth quoting at length:
Probably the next simplest way to cook an oyster, and the one most commonly accepted in restaurants, it to fry him. It is too bad, since the method can be good, that so many chefs dip their oysters in a thick and often infamous batter, which at once plunged into the equally obscene grease, forms a envelope of such slippery toughness that the oyster within it lies helpless and steaming in a foul blanket, tasteless and yet powerfully indigestible.
Firm chilled oysters rolled quickly in crumbs and dipped into good fat for almost no time at all, and then served quickly on hot plates with an honest tartar sauce or lemon slices can be one of the best dishes anywhere. (Daunt Books edition, 2018, 24)
When I revisited this recipe “to friy oyesters” from UPenn Ms Codex 252, I was certain I could accomplish the latter: fresh oysters, good fat, a seasoned crumb, and a quick fry. Indeed, it took far longer to shuck the oysters from the fish market than to cook this recipe.
to friy oyesters
Beat 2 eges with a littell bread
nutmeg and peper and sallt dip in
your oyesters and fry them broun
with freash butter
I was first intrigued this simple recipe when I was setting up the social media accounts for this project back in 2014. This humble receipt has graced the @rare_cooking Twitter avatar ever since. It is written on a small slip of paper that was once pinned into the manuscript – take a look at the pin holes above and below the text. Although the receipt is written on a scrap, the handwriting and inconsistent spelling are similar to one of the manuscript’s dominant hands.
There are many early modern English recipes that call for oysters as an ingredient or showcase oysters on their own. In the culinary tradition, they straddled the boundary between cheap protein for working people and a luxury food associated with seduction. Samuel Pepys writes about eating oysters again and again, sometimes from “my old oyster shop.”
In this simple recipe, the oyster stands on its own. Seasoned with nutmeg, salt, and pepper, and frazzled in butter, these fried oysters are truly delicious.
6 oysters, shucked
1/4 cup breadcrumbs
2T butter (for frying)
Combine the breadcrumbs and seasoning in a shallow bowl.
Beat 1 egg in a shallow bowl. If one egg does not coat all your oysters, you may need to add a second egg.
Heat a cast iron skilled (or your preferred frying pan) on high for 2-3 minutes. Reduce to a medium heat. Add the butter and let it melt and foam.
Dip the oysters in the beaten egg and then the seasoned breadcrumbs. Put each dipped oyster straight into the frying pan. Do not crowd the oysters. Cook for 2-3 minutes and flip each oyster mid-way through to allow both sides to brown.
Eat immediately. Dress with lemon to your taste.
I’m glad that I have a new way to cook and eat this glorious mollusk.