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Mark Twain: Oysters Rockefeller

Whenever I’m asked what famous writer I would invite to a dinner party, the easy answer is Mark Twain. I always imagined someone who could toss out one-liners like “The coldest winter I ever spent was a summer in San Francisco” could be counted on to liven things up when conversation wound down. The thing is, there’s no evidence Twain said that famous line. What he actually wrote about his adopted city was far more generic—suggesting he may have been as prone to small talk as the rest of us after all.

“I fell in love with the most cordial and sociable city in the Union,” Twain remarked blandly after heading west and settling in San Francisco in 1864. A year later, he became nationally famous—one of the many fortune-seekers to find their future in California. 

I thought of Twain last week, as I prepared to make the same cross-country move, packing up my New York life to return to the coast where I grew up. Over the last five years, Manhattan became my own adopted city, and  with barely a week to say my goodbyes, I sought out the things it does best: tingling dan dan noodles at Lan Sheng, bagels loaded with whitefish at Russ and Daughters, the perfect pizza slice at Di Fara.

Which coast has the best oysters, though, is still up for debate, 100 years after Twain posed the question. A seafood connoisseur, he was a regular at San Francisco’s Occidental Hotel, taking his typical breakfast of salmon and fried oysters. He’d return for dinner at 7:30 p.m., when, he wrote, “if you refuse to move upon the supper works and destroy oysters done up in all kinds of seductive styles until 12 o’clock, the landlord will certainly be offended.” Twain’s relationship with the landlord, it should be noted, was excellent.

But Twain didn’t discriminate against Eastern oysters; he was an equal-opportunity eater. After spending two years in Europe, Twain drafted a menu of all the U.S. dishes he missed—over 75 of them. A whole section was devoted to shellfish, in preparations from around the country: “Fried oysters; stewed oysters. … Blue points, on the half shell. Cherry-stone clams. San Francisco mussels, steamed. Oyster soup. Clam Soup. Philadelphia Terapin soup. Oysters roasted in shell-Northern style.”

Twain returned to his home country through the food he ate there, and after a week away, I’m finding myself doing the same: jotting down smoked fish recipes and eyeing pizza stones, wondering if cooking up a taste of the past will be cheaper and easier than buying a plane ticket. Over the last five years, I fell in love with a most cordial and sociable city. Now I’m inviting Mark Twain to dinner, hoping he’ll help me do it again.

Oysters Rockefeller Recipe twain3

Oysters Rockefeller is named for one of the most elite New Yorkers of all time, but it was created by another ex-resident of the Big Apple. Like Twain, Antoine Alciatore made his name after he left the East Coast, frustrated by years of trying and failing to start a restaurant of his own. He hit the jackpot in New Orleans, founding Antoine’s in 1840. It’s now the oldest operating family restaurant in the country. 

Twain hoped for “oysters roasted in the shell” upon his return to the States, and he probably could have scarfed down a dozen of these after his travels. Although I shared mine, I can attest that a platter of them is an ideal way to unwind after a long trip—or just a long day.

(Adapted from Tyler Florence)

3 tablespoons butter
2 garlic cloves, minced
1/3 cup Panko bread crumbs
2 tablespoons olive oil
1/4 cup grated Parmesan
1 tablespoon chopped parsley
2 shallots, minced
2 cups baby spinach
1/4 cup Pernod
Salt and pepper, to taste
2 dozen oysters, on the half shell
Lemon wedges, for garnish

1. Preheat oven to 450°F. Melt butter in a skillet over medium heat. Saute garlic for 2 minutes, then remove from heat. In a small bowl, combine bread crumbs with half the garlic butter. Add olive oil, parmesan and parsley, toss to mix, then set aside.

2. To the remaining garlic butter in the skillet, add shallots and spinach. Cook for 3 minutes over low heat until the spinach wilts. Add Pernod and season with salt and pepper, then allow the mixture to cook down for a few minutes.

3. Spoon 1 heaping teaspoon of the spinach mixture on each oyster followed by a spoonful of the bread crumbs. Bake for 10 to 12 minutes until golden. Serve with lemon wedges.

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