A mollusk of the genus Ostrea, having a bivalve shell, usually found on the gravel or sand, or adhering to rocks or other fixed substances in salt water which is shallow, or in the mouths of rivers. O. edulis, to which, in popular language, the name is especially and almost exclusively applied, is the common species, extensively used for food. — Webster, 1882
No nation under the sun uses oyster crackers in a soup but Americans of the most shoddy class… – “Culture at the Table.” St. Louis Republican, 1884
While there are fifty species of oysters in genus Ostrea, only a few of them are edible. Unable to move on their own, oysters lie on the sea bottom or attach themselves to rocks or other surfaces and feed on microorganisms brought to the oyster by ocean currents. Most oysters are hermaphrodites, meaning they contain both male and female reproductive organs in a single body. Eggs are fertilized within the body and kept in the gills until the larvae are able to produce shells. At this time, they are released into the water, where they will attach to surfaces to mature within about a year.
Why do we only eat fresh oysters in months that have an R in them? During the warmer months (the non-R months of May, June, July, and August), an oyster converts as much as 80 percent of its body weight into sex organs, which aren’t as tasty as the “meat” of the oyster during colder months. Today, oysters aren’t harvested in open water during the summer in order to allow the oysters to produce more offspring, a lesson learned by experience. While the oyster industry had flourished in Europe prior to the Civil War in America, oyster numbers declined due to over-harvesting, particularly during the summer months. While Chesapeake Bay is the largest oyster producing body of water in the world, many of its oyster beds were fast being depleted, leading to canneries being built in Mississippi to handle oysters from the Gulf of Mexico.
At the time of the Little House books, vast numbers of natural oyster beds could be found along the eastern seaboard, with the greatest market for oysters found in Baltimore, Maryland. During the years the Ingallses were living on the banks of Plum Creek, oyster fisheries in Maryland employed as many as six hundred ships of twenty-three tons each, as well as thousands of small boats and canoes to harvest oysters from the Atlantic Ocean. Multiple firms canned upwards of a million bushels of oysters each year, shipping them by rail or steamboat to all parts of the country, where individual cans of oysters were sold for about a dime. The oyster can label above is from the 1870s.
Oysters: From the Ocean to the Table. In Laura’s day, oysters were canned at factories located near both the oyster grounds (where the oysters were harvested) and railroads (so that the canned oysters could easily be shipped to other parts of the country).
Oysters were unloaded from ships onto railroad-like cars made of strap-iron, 2-1/2 feet wide by 6 feet long, and deep enough to hold about five bushels. These cars ran on tracks into a “steaming box” which made the oysters open their shells after a few minutes. The cars were then run onto side tracks, where men and women shucked the oysters, removing the meat from the shells. Shuckers in the 1880s were paid about twenty cents per gallon of oysters. Shells could be sold for about seven cents per bushel. The shells were used in the manufacture of buttons or other items (see mother-of-pearl). Oyster shells were also crushed and used in the manufacture of roads.
After the oysters were shucked, the liquor was drained off and the oysters were rinsed in cold water. They were placed in various sized tin cans and a brine of three percent salt was added. The cans were then capped, cleaned, and heat-processed.
Oyster Soup Recipes from the time of the Little House books.
For four cans of oysters have twelve crackers rolled fine, two quarts boiling water, one pint of good rich milk. Let the milk and water come to a boil, add the crackers, salt and pepper, boil one minute briskly; pour in the oysters and let all come to a scald; add about a quarter of a pound of butter as they are poured into a tureen. — Isabella G.D. Stewart, Sally B. Sill, and Mary B. Duffield, The Home Messenger Book of Tested Receipts (Detroit: E.B. Smith & Company, 1878), 14.
To one quart of oysters add half a pint of water. Put this on the fire and as soon as it reaches the boiling point (not to boil), strain the liquid through the colander. Put into a separate saucepan a piece of butter the size of an egg, and to this add, when it bubbles (do not let is scorch), a tablespoon of sifted flour; let this cook a few minutes, stirring well; then add half a pint of sweet milk and then the oysters, seasoning with salt and a little cayenne pepper. Do not let the soup boil, but keep it quite hot for a moment or two after adding the oysters. Have both soup and oysters cooking so equally that neither waits for the other. — Isabella G.D. Stewart, Sally B. Sill, and Mary B. Duffield, The Home Messenger Book of Tested Receipts (Detroit: E.B. Smith & Company, 1878), 15.
Oyster Stew Recipes from the time of the Little House books.
Put the oysters with the broth to boil, and when they begin to curl, skim them out of the kettle into a pan of cold water; let them lie in the water until the broth has been skimmed and seasoned with butter, salt and pepper, add mace if you like; then drain off the water and return the oysters to the broth. When they begin to boil up again they are ready to serve, and will be found to be more plump and hard by the process. — Isabella G.D. Stewart, Sally B. Sill, and Mary B. Duffield, The Home Messenger Book of Tested Receipts (Detroit: E.B. Smith & Company, 1878), 16.
Oyster stew, prepared plain or with milk, or oyster essence made by slowly simmering oysters in their liquor or a little water until they swell, seasoning with salt, staining the liquor, and serving with dry toast or plain biscuits, are excellent methods of giving oysters. — E. Harris Ruddock, M.D. and E.B. Shuldham, M.D. Essentials of Diet: Hints on Food, In Health and Disease (New York: Boericke and Tafel,1876), 45.
Put a quart of oysters on the fire in their own liquor. The moment they begin to boil, skim them out, and add to the liquor a half-pint of hot cream, salt, and Cayenne pepper to taste. Skim it well, take it off the fire, add to the oysters an ounce and a half of butter broken into small pieces. Serve immediately. — Mrs. Mary F. Henderson, Practical Cooking and Dinner Giving (New York: Harper & Brothers Publishers, 1870), 115.
Stewed oysters. (In Milk or Cream.) – Drain the liquor from two quarts of oysters; mix with it a small teacupful of hot water, add a little salt and pepper, and set it over the fire in a sauce-pan. Let it boil up once, put in the oysters, let them come to a boil, and when they “ruffle” add two tablespoonfuls of butter. The instant it is melted and well stirred in, put in a pint of boiling milk, and take the sauce-pan from the fire. Serve with oyster or cream crackers. Serve while hot. / If thickening is preferred, stir in a little flour or a two tablespoonfuls of cracker-crumbs. — Fanny Lemira Gillette, White House Cook Book (Chicago: R.S. Peale & Co., 1887), 63.
“…I ate all the rest of the oyster crackers. They were no bigger than the end of my thumb. One of them wasn’t half a mouthful, and the whole half-pound of them wasn’t very filling.” – On the Banks of Plum Creek, Chapter 40, “The Fourth Day”
The oyster cracker was invented to be served with oyster soups or stews; the halves of the small hexagonal or round cracker easily come apart, suggesting the two halves of an oyster’s shell. Similar in taste to a saltine cracker, there are no oysters in oyster crackers! They were invented in 1847 by Adam and John Exton, two English bakers who had emigrated to Trenton, New Jersey. The Extons’ crackers were first known as “Trenton Crackers” and were shipped to markets in New York and Pennsylvania. Oyster crackers were quite popular, so the following year, a rival baker in Trenton, Ezekiel Pullen, created the “Original Trenton Cracker” in his home bakery. After over 150 years of competition, the Exton Company was finally bought out by its rival, resulting in the one and only “Original Trenton Cracker” (or O.T.C.®). The company was bought in 1993 by Specialty Brands of America; they still manufacture the oyster crackers as part of their O.T.C.® product line.
oyster (BPC 40; SSL 22; TLW 18; PG), see also lime, mother-of-pearl, pearl
crackers (BPC 40; SSL 19; LTP 20; PG)
soup (SSL 22; TLW 18; LTP 20; PG)
stew (BPC 41)