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Silver Threads: Oyster Country

My high-school senior grandson is getting his ducks in a row to register for college, perhaps one as far away as New York state.

Bettye Anding

Bettye Anding

His younger brother is finishing the ninth grade this year, and if I had to guess, I’d say that for dietary reasons he’ll enroll in higher education right here in town when the time comes.

When Jack went to Boy Scout camp for the first time when he was 7 or 8, he came home grumbling that not a single oyster -- or, indeed, any seafood -- had been served during his two weeks away in the woods on the north shore. I sympathized with Jack. He’s like me; he thinks the oyster is nature’s most perfect food. I don’t have to have oysters every week, but I don’t care to go two without any.

My preferred venues for the delicacy are a couple of places near Causeway and the lake -- charbroiled and on the half shell -- and  the grandsons and my husband and I patronize a po-boy place right in our neighborhood that fries up some of the best oysters in town to put on crispy French bread with mayo, lettuce, tomatoes, dill pickles, and a tiny bit of ketchup.

Growing up in tiny town, Texas, I was treated to plenty of catfish, perch and bream, but shrimp and oysters were an infrequent treat. Crawfish? We didn’t know they were edible; we kids caught them for fun and then threw them back into their pond. Fortunately, Mother and Daddy had lived for a while in places like Houma and Golden Meadow, and had enjoyed the seafood so much that they sought it out when it was available in nearby Shreveport.

If you didn’t live on the coast back then, you had to wait until a train came through with seafood packed in ice, and the big restaurants along the route claimed their “catches” trackside. A friend of mine from Meridian, Miss., tells of the oysters served in his towns during those days.

Mother loved oysters, but she always fried them, so it wasn’t until I finished college and took a job on a newspaper in Jackson, Miss., that I tasted one right off the half-shell. I barely got it down and didn’t find anything about it to like, much less rave about. Jonathan Swift said, “He was a bold man that first eat an oyster.”

Two years later I was living in New Orleans, and hadn’t made any progress with raw oysters. I loved the crabmeat au gratin, shrimp remoulade, flounder, pompano and redfish in French Quarter restaurants but had yet to become as familiar as I wanted to with the bivalve. I’d gone to a big crawfish boil in a park and watched in horror as they poured hundreds of pounds out on picnic tables and the Orleanians pinched, peeled and sucked. I ate potato salad.

You know that I came around, though. With oysters, it was when we started buying them by the sack and opening them with friends at home. I even learned to make oysters Rockefeller!

I got to thinking about all this when I realized that Jazz Fest is happening this weekend and next, and remembering those tasty little sacks of crawfish cooked in rice paper and tied with green shallots. And did you know about the St. Bernard Crawfish Cook-off on Saturday in Chalmette?

But the big deal as far as I’m concerned will be the New Orleans Oyster Festival on June 1 and 2 in Woldenberg Park. Scroll past all the May fests featuring delicious food, and you’ll see a notice about this free event featuring an oyster eating contest, a shucking contest and, in addition to charbroiled and raw oysters, the delicacy will be featured in boudin, gumbo, po-boys, and other dishes.

Why is this festival in June? “To dispel the myth worldwide about the R months,” says Sal Sunseri, co-founder of the event. “This time of the year, oysters are fantastic.” He’s preaching to the choir.

Bettye Anding is a former editor of the Living section of The Times Picayune, for which she wrote “Silver Threads” until her retirement. Email comments to her at [email protected].

Bettye Anding is a former editor of the Living section of The Times Picayune, for which she wrote “Silver Threads” until her retirement. Email comments to her at [email protected]