Chesapeake Bay country is laced with traditions; ways of doing things that have existed, and proven effective, through dozens of generations. Many local traditions focus on culinary customs, such as cooking oysters and baking distinctive biscuits and breads.
Oysters hold a special place in Chesapeake tradition and menus. The bay’s oysters were a favorite of the region’s Native Americans and still delight aficionados. On Saturday, Oct. 19, the St. Mary’s County Fairgrounds in Leonardtown, Md., will host the 40th Annual National Oyster Cook-Off, a part of the U.S. Oyster Festival. The contest is open to the public, and invites anyone with an original oyster recipe to enter in one of three menu categories: hors d’oeuvres, soups and stews, and main dishes.
You can submit up to six recipes by Aug. 31. Nine finalists — three contestants per category — will be chosen in a blind evaluation of their recipes. Prizes in each division include: $300 for first place, $200 for second, $150 for third, and a grand prize total of $1,300.
Fresh oysters must be the predominant part of your dish, and the recipe must use a minimum of a pint of oysters or a dozen fresh oysters in the shell. Contestant chefs cook their dishes in view of the public, but out of the view of the judges. The finished dishes are then submitted to the judges for a blind tasting and to the public audience.
The National Oyster Cook-Off offers an opportunity to serve your oyster recipe to judges who are professionals in the culinary industry. For more information and complete rules, visit usoysterfest.com, or contact the U.S. Oyster Festival at P.O. Box 766, California, MD 20619.
Beaten biscuits from cob ovens
Beaten biscuits are another Chesapeake tradition, made from dough literally beaten to entrain air to help the dough rise. Frequently, those biscuits, and diverse breads, pastries and other dishes, were baked in a “cob oven.” Imagine an igloo-shaped, hollow mound of “cob”, hardened earth mixed with straw, maybe two feet high and a yard across, complete with an igloo-style entrance. Inside the mound, a hot, “quick” fire of stacked finger-sized wood quickly heats the oven’s thick, masonry walls and base. Instinct and experience tell the baker when to rake out the flaming embers, swab the oven’s floor and use the heat trapped in the oven’s masonry to bake a range of foods.
People all over the world still use earthen ovens to bake their daily bread. Earthen ovens can be seen in Peru’s Andes Mountain villages, or in Italy, North Africa, the Middle East, or even New Mexico’s Indian Pueblo Cultural Center. Well into the 19th century, homemade ovens were common sights in rural America.
Today, residential cob ovens are more of a novelty, the domain of enthusiasts and culinary historians, often fashioned from YouTube video instructions. The Benjamin Banneker Historical Park and Museum in Oella, Md., has a working cob oven of a size appropriate for a family. Under a simple lean-to shelter, the oven’s interior temperature can exceed 500 degrees Fahrenheit.
The Bushong House at the Virginia Museum of the Civil War in New Market, Va., has a more upscale outdoor oven, made of brick and equipped with a roof that also covers a prep space. Though less primitive in construction than Banneker’s cob oven, the Bushong’s operating routine is the same: build a fire inside, heat the masonry, rake out the coals and bake. At Landis Valley, outside of Lancaster, Pa., the outdoor oven also operates the same, but shares a substantial stone and siding structure with a smokehouse.
Kitchen Guy’s Oysters Guilford
1 pint select oysters with liquor
1 pint seasoned breadcrumbs
1/2 teaspoon fresh crushed black pepper
In a bowl, mix the oysters and liquor with a beaten egg and black pepper. Pour the seasoned breadcrumbs into a second bowl. Heat a ¼-inch layer of corn oil in the frying pan. Using pincers or a fork, dip one oyster at a time into the bowl of breadcrumbs and coat thoroughly. Remove each coated oyster and place into the preheated corn oil.
The oysters can cook anywhere from 3 to 10 minutes depending on their size and the heat of the oil. Remove the finished oysters from the pan and place on a paper towel. Serve with cocktail sauce and lemon wedges.