Oyster Supper

I

THE pen that would picture to the eye that never saw, and can never hope to see, a table so bespread with lavish provender as was that set for an oyster supper at the Fowler farmhouse, the pen that would depict an old-fashioned oyster supper as once given by the Shooting Club in Southern Michigan, must justly poise in reflective mood above the waiting page. How to describe the fragrance, first of the opening cans, then of the heating broth as it stole through kitchen door to anterooms, teasing the nose, aggravating to instant action the salivary responses of the tongue! With what poor words to portray the long, wide table extending the length of the large dining room, duplicated by a second in the room beyond, each seating at least twelve people, the thick, satiny folds of their cloths hanging almost to the floor! For this was in the days when a housewife prided herself upon the size, quantity, and quality of her table linen.

In the centre of each table stood a stately silver caster with cruets of sparkling glass, each bottle handsomely etched and stoppered in heavy excellence of cut and pattern. Flanking these were huge bowls of slaw, but slaw of no common order such as housewives fling together with bowl and knife and dash of salt and vinegar. This was slaw shredded to a hair and dressed with thick sour cream, its own acerbity pitched to a little higher key with vinegar ripened from the cider barrel, the whole tempered by the dulcet quality of sugar and savored with salt — no common slaw indeed, but a cream of slaw, perfect accompaniment to oysters in any and every form.

Bowls of slaw, then, of palest green filmed with cream and pointed with infinitesimal dots of black and red pepper, bolstered the casters. And beyond these, at one end, was a high cylindrical dish holding celery, and at the other a somewhat similar dish swinging in its silver frame and filled with long spikes of cucumber pickles, slightly tart and strong of dill.

At each place was a large white china plate with gold band around the edge and threadlike circle of gold in the centre. Silver flanked the sides: knife, soup spoon, oyster fork, to the right; dessert fork, dinner fork, to the left; and a goblet for water just above the plate alongside a tiny butter dish — the same sometimes used to hold the cup when tea or coffee was poured into the saucer to cool. Mrs. Fowler’s goblets were of the thumbprint pattern, not so handsome as my mother’s bell-flowers, but catching every reflected beam from the hanging lamp overhead with its many prisms. The large linen napkin, folded snugly square, lay at the left.

There was no food on the table other than the slaw, the crackers, and the condiments, when we sat down, except —

Except! Reposing on each dinner plate was a generous saucer of oysters, raw — not a cocktail glass (we had never heard of them), but a saucer such as belonged to a sizable cup: oysters gray and cold, with tiny slivers of ice here and there, releasing to the hungered nostril a faint aroma recalling that first heavenly acquaintance with this succulent son of the sea as it was discovered to us in our own kitchen; oysters to be dressed according to individual taste or adventurous spirit, with vinegar, horseradish, ketchup from the casters, and salt from the individual saltcellars before us.

These we ate with relish, and much laughter. The spearing of a ketchup-drenched oyster on a small-sized fork and its safe conveyance to the mouth were a sufficiently new enterprise to be undertaken with amusement. If there were any to whom the bivalve in his natural condition did not appeal, the contents of their dishes were more or less unobtrusively distributed among those who could not get their fill.

This prelude to further delights disposed of, the ‘ ladies ’ replaced each saucer with a large deep plate which sent up clouds of aromatic steam flavored of the pots of Olympus, where gods once did their cooking and angels came to eat — soup plates of a kind no longer known, but belonging to a day when soup was a goodly part of the meal, not merely a whet to appetite bored and dull; soup plates filled with oyster stew made in a wash boiler, made with milk that was half cream and brought to a boil but never boiled, seasoned with salt and pepper, yellowed with butter, with the oysters dropped into it at the last moment to curl their fluted edges in its heat; stew hot and tasty, and simply gorgeous to the tongue. But if you think that was all, you are wrong. The meal, you might justly say, was but begun.

When, after leisurely (and not too noisy) consummation of this overture to the real drama before us, the soup plates were gathered up and taken into the kitchen to be washed by the hired girl and the extra woman who had come in to help, great pans of scalloped oysters were brought in and placed at each end of the table — milk pans, shallow but large of girth, with snowy towels wrapped around their sides to hold the heat, disguise their plebeian nature, and make them easy to handle.

Along the table they were passed, down one side and up the other like a Virginia reel, the men holding the pan and politely helping their ladies before themselves: oysters laid to bed with blankets underneath and above of crumbled crackers drenched with cream and butter; oysters seasoned to a nice precision and done just to perfection, but not a jot or tittle either side.

My mother, long versed in the art of cooking oysters in this manner to please my father’s taste, usually had a hand in the preparation of these pans.

‘The secret,’ she told the ladies, ‘of having good scalloped oysters is first in not having too deep a dish. If your dish is deep the oysters on top and bottom will be overdone, or those in the middle not done enough. And, next, in having just the right amount of milk, — which is half cream, —just the right seasoning of salt and black pepper, and plenty of butter. No scrimping on butter.’

II

That is all there was (God save us! All there was!) to this course of the meal: just scalloped oysters, cream slaw, a dill pickle if you wanted it, celery, coffee, and quantities of hot, crisp, flaky ‘riz biscuits’ and butter — quantities of everything.

All there was, but — preceded probably by two huge plates of stew and the great saucer of ‘raws’— by cracky, it was enough, as my father vehemently remarked upon his introduction to this epicurean feast. Why they wanted to go, he scoffed after we had retired to Uncle Matt’s house, and mess up such a taste in your mouth with cake, he could n’t for the life of him see.

But there were those, nevertheless, — and no inconsiderable number of them, either, — who liked their cake, and who looked forward to its appearance with as much eagerness as my father would to a piece of plum pudding after his Christmas dinner.

And with reason. My mother took no special pride in cake making other than in a certain spice cake which was a favorite with my father, and she did not excel in the creation of those mountains of sweetness and beauty which were the joy of other women — probably because, ordinary cake and flimsy puddings being held in scornful disrepute by my father, she had never felt obliged to exercise what skill she may have had in their concoction. With my AuntMartha, however, with Mis’ Fowler and Mis’ Taylor, wife of one of the club members, and with our old neighbor, Mis’ Bouldry, cake making was an art. They made cakes as some paint pictures, weave tapestries, or create images in stone.

Aunt Martha, for instance, made, and frequently contributed to the supper, what she called the Black Queen’s Cake, and while I have inherited my father’s husky preference for ‘vittles’ as against ‘folderols and knickknacks’ in cookery, I must admit that here was a cake worthy to follow even — if anything must follow — upon such a feast as this. Unfortunately I can find no record of her exact rule, but I did find, in a recent raid upon handed-down cookbooks and recipes in Southern Michigan, one that seems to approximate the product in texture and flavor.

To perform the miracle, you put two cups of light brown sugar and half a cup of butter into a mixing bowl and cream these together. Add two unbeaten eggs and beat until light and fluffy. Put one level teaspoonful of soda into three fourths of a cup of sweet milk and add it to the above mixture. Then add two cups of flour, beating it in thoroughly, and two teaspoonfuls of vanilla.

Now put two and a half heaping tablespoonfuls of cocoa (or two and a half bars of melted chocolate) into a basin and pour over it one cup of boiling water, mixing thoroughly until dissolved. Add this to the cake mixture and stir well together. Pour into three well-greased layer-cake tins, medium size, and bake thirty to forty minutes in a moderate oven. Do not bake too rapidly or too long.

When done, cool and put together with a filling made as follows: take one half box of confectioner’s sugar, cream with two tablespoonfuls of butter, and flavor with vanilla; add two squares of bitter chocolate melted, or two tablespoonfuls of cocoa, and mix the whole with strong black coffee (very little at a time) to the right consistency, then beat until fluffy.

Now there is the Black Queen’s Cake, and whatever African Majesty was deemed worthy of such homage must have been a queen indeed.

The cake for which Mis’ Taylor held repute was known as a Watermelon Cake, and for its colorful character was well adapted to its role as a major dessert. A rule guaranteed by one who in her youth knew my Aunt Martha, and who even in her ninetieth year still holds the yellow mixing bowl in a cunning hand, reads thus on her time-stained page: —

‘To make it you take, for the white part, two cups of white sugar and one cup of butter and cream them together. Dissolve two teaspoonfuls of cream of tartar and one of soda in a little warm water and then mix it with a cup of sweet milk. Take three and a half cups of flour and mix alternately with the milk into the sugar and butter. Now beat up the whites of eight eggs to a stiff froth and add these last.

‘For the red part, take one cup of red sugar and half a cup of butter and cream them together. Dissolve one teaspoonful of cream of tartar and one-half teaspoonful of soda in a little warm water and mix it with one-third cup of sweet milk. Beat the whites of four eggs stiff and stir them in. Now stir in one cup of lightly floured raisins.

‘It requires two persons to fill the pan, which should be a large one with a tube in the centre, and well buttered. Keep the red part around the tube and the white part at the edge. This is a very attractive and ornamental cake.’

And, one might add, a large and luscious one. Just as a finishing touch, you might make a light green frosting, mottled with white, and if you want anything more realistic the answer is to substitute watermelon for watermelon cake — the objection to such substitution being that you could n’t get watermelon and oysters at the same time.

I confess that I did not quite understand the tube arrangement and could not see the point of having a hollow place even in a simulated watermelon, or why two persons are required for the process; so we set a ring mould, without any bottom, in the centre of a large cake pan and put the red part in it.

There were other cakes at other times, — White Mountain cake, hickorynut cake, whipped-cream cake, cupcakes frosted with red sugar, — a very plethora of cakes; but the two I have given you were never far excelled in either taste or beauty of appearance, and always they were served in a manner suggesting Greeks and gifts, on glass cake dishes high and handsome.

What was done with all the ‘yelks’ left over from these orgies with beaten whites I do not know, although I confess that every time I am admonished through these munificent old rules to ‘beat up eight whites,’ or ‘ten whites,’ my impoverished latter-day mind gives a sort of economical gasp. But they did not need to worry about a few egg ‘yelks,’ so why should I?