Chicken, Oysters, and Time Travel
“To smother a Fowl in Oysters,” advises the first American cookbook author Amelia Simmons, “fill the bird with dry Oysters, and sew up and boil in water just sufficient.” These instructions, from her 1796 volume American Cookery, are bound to make most modern stomachs revolt. We like our surf and turf well enough when it’s steak and lobster, cooked separately, thank you very much. But chicken and oysters boiled together sounds just dreadful. Which means, chicken and oysters sounds just perfect to me!
In my ongoing quest to wrap my brain around how American palates could have changed so dramatically over the past centuries that what was once a delight is now an abomination,* Simmon’s recipe for fowl smothered in oysters screams out to be tested. My children and husband cry out not to be the guinea pigs, but there are sacrifices we must make for the people we love. And I should admit that I have a strong ulterior motive for this cooking experiment, which allows me to steel my soul against the cries of the innocents. Followers of this blog may have noticed that a couple of seasons have passed since it was last updated. There is a reason for my long silence. My fingers have been too busy at the keyboard to hold the chopping knife.
I’ve been writing a novel!
Not just any novel, but a time-travel adventure romance novel, in which Amelia Simmons’ recipe for “Fowl in Oysters,” plays a cameo role. Yesterday I put the finishing touches on the second draft, and today I celebrate by cooking up this questionable plot element.
Simmons’ instructions are terse, in keeping with the times. Fill the chicken with dried oysters, boil it until done, pour a pint of stewed oysters on top, and serve with parsley sauce. To understand why anyone would have thought this a good idea, it may help to consider some historical context. To begin, eighteenth-century cooks were preparing very different chickens than we mostly cook today. Rather than use a young bird raised exclusively for its meat, they were more likely to cook an older hen that had stopped laying. Old birds required more extensive cooking to become toothsome, but the long boiling likely stripped them of flavor, so adding a highly-flavored element like oysters to the dish made sense.
Oysters made particular sense as a flavor additive in New York (where Simmons likely lived), because they were so abundant along its shoreline. Considering that the majority of the action in my novel takes place in eighteenth-century New York, cooking Simmons’ recipe seems particularly fitting.
New York’s oyster days are long past. I’m a native New Yorker, but my childhood dinners were entirely oyster-free. Maybe that’s because I’m Jewish, although we ate plenty of bologna and Chinese spare ribs. I would guess that it has more to do with growing up in the 70s and 80s, not high points in New York oyster farming.
Luckily for me, I now live on an island off the opposite coast of North America, where oysters are very abundant – if not quite as inexpensive as during Amelia Simmons’ time.The Salish Sea that surrounds my adopted hometown of Victoria produces beautiful oysters – clean and buttery.
Finding dried oysters like those Simmons would have used poses more of a challenge in Victoria. A little research produced two options. First, I could buy smoked oysters from Finest at Sea, our wonderful local sustainable seafood vendor. Finest at Sea marinates their oysters in sesame oil and chill, flavors not common to eighteenth-century American cooking. Second, I could buy dried oysters from one of the Chinese grocers on Fisgard Street, the heart of western Canada’s oldest (and tiniest) Chinatown.
I compromised by buying my dried oysters from Chinatown – ironically to avoid Asian flavoring – and my fresh oysters from Finest at Sea. The Fisgard market oysters smell intensely, I’m struggling for a simile. The smell is deep and oceanic, unadulterated by any spice I recognize. I wouldn’t want to eat them as a snack. For the sake of research (always research!) I also bought and devoured a Finest At Sea smoked oyster, which was sweet and delicious, in a candied-salmon sort of way. I think I made the right choice for the recipe.
After stuffing the oysters into the chicken (a four-pound roaster) there was still room remaining, but I tied up the cavity on the assumption that the dried oysters would swell during the boiling. Then, as Miss Simmons instructed (and readers of my Ben Franklin’s apple pudding post know that I always follow instructions, no matter how violently I disagree with them), I boiled the chicken. I did not add aromatics. I did not use Jeff Smith’s frugal-gourmet technique of turning off the flame after you submerge the chicken in boiling water. I did not sous vide. I boiled. Since Simmons doesn’t offer any cooking times, I settled on an hour, figuring that the Anglo-American cooking generally favored more cooking rather than less.
Amelia Simmons’ terse instructions leave another unanswered question. How should one stew the oysters to smother the dish? Mark Kurlansky, author of The Big Oyster: History of the Half Shell (and also the translator for Zola’s The Belly of Paris) suggests the following approach from the handwritten recipe book of Maria Sanders van Rensselaer (1749-1830), who lived in Albany (on Pearl street!). “Set them over the fire in their own liquor with a glass of wine, a lump of butter, some salt, pepper, and mace. Let them stew gently.”
Van Rensselaer’s recipe seemed particularly fitting since not only did she come from New York state, she was also an orphan, like Amelia Simmons, who wrote her cookbook as an aide to other “females in this country, who, by loss of their parents or other unfortunate circumstances, are reduced to the necessity of going into families in the line of domestics.” In Charity and Sylvia, I wrote about how the experience of orphanhood, both cultural and familial, was shared by many American youths who came of age during the Revolutionary era. The time-travelling heroine of my novel is also an orphan. She grew up in the 1990s, but for reasons that I dare not give away, the taste of chicken smothered with oysters evokes home for her.
Chicken with oysters, however, will not become the flavor of my home anytime soon. It would be hard to overstate the dread my children felt as the dinner hour approached. This feeling was magnified after I removed the chicken from its boiling liquid and the full heady scent of its oystered flesh rose into the air. Or maybe the scent was from the saucepan of white wine and oysters simmering on the stove top. Even le rosbif (not the greatest oyster fan) couldn’t stand it. He opened all the windows and the back doors of the kitchen. But apparently the smell is ambrosial to wasps, since no sooner had le rosbif stepped out to catch his breath on the deck than all the yellow-jackets in the neighborhood came buzzing into the kitchen to surround the pièce de resistance.
As you can see, no magic alchemy took place in the cooking that transformed this recipe from anything other than it appeared at the outset: boiled chicken with oysters. It’s ugly as sin, but I didn’t find the flavor of the meat paired with the soft stewed oysters bad. (I also made an eighteenth-century parsley sauce to accompany it, which was okay in a bland kind of way. You boil the parsley first.) I tried one of the dried oysters but I could barely swallow it. Not that it tasted bad; it just tasted so intense that I thought my brain might explode. The kids managed to eat their chicken by slathering it with hoisin sauce. Le rosbif ate the chicken unadulterated, but steered clear of the oysters.
After dinner, I thought of a conversation I’ve had with historian Amanda Moniz, who blogs at History’s Just Desserts, about the challenge of recreating past recipes with any accuracy. I wonder whether the dish I cooked from Simmon’s directions resembles at all the dish she cooked. What did her dried oysters taste like? Did she chop the oysters for her sauce so they didn’t just hang like quivery lumps above the bird? Did she use aromatics? Ultimately, I guess I’m asking did her dish taste better than mine? Or have tastes just changed so profoundly in the past two hundred and forty years that the dish above would once have met an enthusiastic reception at the dinner table?
I’ll never have an answer to that question as a historian. But as a novelist it’s been fun to have the freedom to invent, to invent a character who can taste her way through the past and compare the flavors to those we’re familiar with today.
It’s too bad I make her go hungry for much of the novel. If you want to know why you’ll have to wait to find out.
*Of course, as canny readers might point out, matching fowl with oysters is not entirely alien to modern tastes. Every Thanksgiving, cooks around the United States prepare traditional oyster stuffings for their turkeys. Amelia Simmons would have approved; she suggests using turkey as an option in the recipe. She’s also the first cookbook author to suggest matching turkey and cranberry sauce. In other words, even though American cooks continue to pair fowl and oysters today, they do so in an act of popular food memory, evoking historic traditions that help cement a sense of nation and community. How many modern menus offer this dish?