Oysters were relished by the masses and prepared in a myriad of ways during the 18th century. How did the early Pennsylvania Dutch feel about them and how did they prepare them? By examining multiple types of records, we get an idea of their presence throughout Pennsylvania and perhaps the key piece of evidence is the multitude of ways in which oysters were transported inland from the waterways and the length of time they were kept after harvest.
Once gathered, live oysters could be packed into small barrels and stored from a week to ten days. A footnote in an 18th century English cookbook claimed that once taken out of the shell, they could be put into bottles and kept in their juice “for a little time”, by pouring olive-oil over them and corking the bottle. That conjures up images of putrid oysters slipping from the oily bottle, but perhaps it isn’t so very outlandish when one considers oysters weren’t harvested in the heat of summer and that some epicures were said to relish the flavor of stale oysters better than those freshly taken from the beds.
We have live oysters being transported, stored, and sold up to a week and a half after being taken from the oyster beds and also being kept in salted water and fed on cereal grains for perhaps longer, yet there was no indication that shucked oysters were being kept in bottles in Pennsylvania. (Comprehensive Treatise on Domestic Brewing, 1847).
The Pennsylvania summers aren’t as long as those in the South, but the temperatures can reach into the 90’s during August, so it is doubtful shucked oysters would have lasted in Pennsylvania except in winter and then in an unheated location. Luckily, the trip upriver wasn’t more than a few hours time and live oysters would have reached their destination in good order. By the mid-1800’s railroads further shortened the delivery time of fish and shellfish inland.
Philadelphia was among the cities that supported oyster houses where one could have their oysters freshly opened for a quick snack or meal. Oysters could be purchased for the home from a woman called an oyster wench or from a peddler that traveled from farm to farm. So many oysters were consumed in Pennsylvania, that by the end of the century acts were being passed to regulate the harvesting of them so as not to harvest them to extinction.
We’ve proven oysters were available throughout Pennsylvania, so now let’s consider how the Pennsylvania Dutch housewives might have prepared them. A 1935 book on Pennsylvania Dutch food contains four recipes for oysters. One instructed in how to fry them, and another was a recipe for Oyster Pie. Is oyster pie a 20th century dish, or, despite the absence of an 18th century recipe actually penned in Pennsylvania, was it prepared considerably earlier?
For the answer, we turn to our old friend, Hannah Glasse and see that she was making pies, soup, stew and sauces, etc. with them in England and given the success of her cookbooks we can be fairly certain that similar dishes would have been known throughout most of Europe. It stands to reason that upon finding a plentiful supply of oysters in America the Europeans would have made similar dishes. Blissful Meals, all.
“To Make a Muscle-Pie [Oyster].
Make a good crust, lay it all over the dish, wash your muscles clean in several waters, then put them in a deep stew-pan, cover them, and let them stew till they are open, pick them out, and see there be no crabs under the tongue; put them in a sauce-pan, with two or three blades of mace, strain liquor just enough to cover them, a good piece of butter, and a few crumbs of bread; stew them a few minutes, so fill your pie, put on the lid, and bake it half an hour. So you may make an oyster pie. Always let your fish be cold before you put on the lid, or it will spoil the crust.” – Hannah Glasse.
“Dutch Chicken Oyster Pie. Stew chicken until tender, season with quarter pound butter, salt, and pepper. Line deep pie dish with pastry crust. Pour in the stewed chicken and cover loosely with a crust, cutting in the center of this crust a hole the size of a small teacup. Prepare separately one pint of oysters, heating the liquor, thickening with a little flour and water. Season with salt, pepper, and two tablespoons of butter. When it comes to a boil, pour over the oysters. Twenty minutes before the pie is done, lift the top crust and put the oyster mixture in.” – Frederick, Justus. Pennsylvania Dutch Cookbook. 1935.
“Oyster Pot Pie, Allentown. [This pie was like the Penn. Dutch chicken pot pie with dumplings/noodles instead of being baked in a crust] 1 quart oysters, 2 tablespoons butter, 1 tablespoon flour, or more, 1 teaspoon paprika, 1 teaspoon minced parsley, biscuit. Scald the oysters in their own liquor; when the water boils skim out the oysters and keep warm. Add to the oyster liquor a pint of water, a teaspoon of salt, and half a teaspoon of pepper and the parsley. Also the butter. Thicken with the flour, mixed with a little cold water. Have ready some light biscuit dough, which cut into squares and drop into the hot oyster liquor. Cover tight and cook for 20 minutes. Then stir the oysters in and serve in one dish sprinkled with paprika.” – Frederick.