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The Mystery Of Oysters Rockefeller

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In the middle of winter, hundreds of intrepid Maryland watermen motor into the Chesapeake Bay and its tributaries to go fishing for oysters. Nearby oyster farms are currently turning out a record haul, keeping hungry Marylanders well supplied. And as Chef Jerry Pellegrino would tell you, of all the wonderful way to eat oysters, none is as famous or mysterious as Oysters Rockefeller.

Like all good mysteries, there at first appears to be an abundance of information to pique your curiosity.  The dish was created at Antoine's, a celebrated New Orleans restaurant in 1889. Jules Alciatore, son of the founder Antoine, invented the dish as a work-around for a chronic shortage of escargot.  It was an immediate hit. The same dish with the same recipe is still available. And of course, if you order the dish you are free to examine it, taste it, and speculate on the recipe. And that is where the mystery starts.

Oysters Rockefeller are oysters served on the half-shell, covered with some kind of a green sauce, dusted with bread crumbs and then baked or broiled.  Some people will swear that there is a touch of Pernod or some other licorice flavored liqueur tucked away into the sauce.  Others swear that the sauce is green because there has to be a batch of spinach pureed into it. According to Antoine's, neither theory is correct.   At any rate, the dish is so rich and tasty that the association with the name Rockefeller seems wholly justified.

That original recipe that Jules Alciatore whipped up was derived from a very popular appetizer called "Snails Bourgignon." Reputedly, Jules worked long and hard to come up with the correct ingredients and proportions. He taught his kitchen staff the recipe, which possibly was never written down, and swore them to secrecy.

To make the sacred promise even more iron-clad, Jules gathered the staff around his death-bed and made them swear again to protect the great legacy of Antoine's.

Eventually the restaurant came upon harder times, and in 1980 Antoine's descendent Roy Guste wrote up a version of the Oysters Rockefeller recipe for public consumption. His "sanitized" and probably "redacted" version specifies spinach and parsley as the greens... but few are convinced. Many restaurants have tried to reproduce the dish, but according to Antoine's, none have succeeded. The secret remains intact.

I sifted through the Internet seeking inspired guesses, and here are a few things I found.

Saveur magazine believes the herbed topping is actually a roux mixed with pureed tarragon and parsley. I like the tarragon idea, because it would introduce that touch of licorice.

Southern Living magazine suspects absinthe as the licorice source, but they also include bacon, which is patently not in the original recipe.

The ever-reliable Epicurious calls for watercress in a nod to the original legends that  grew up along with the dish.  I also found an earlier guesstimate (from 1999) that includes fennel seed and chopped green onions.

The famous New Orleans restaurant Galatoire's published a long and convincing recipe that calls for chopped fennel bulb and chopped leeks both of which sound plausible...but also for spinach, which as we now know is off-base.

If you want to have fun with creating your own recipe, try using things like crumbled bacon, parmesan cheese, green onions, sorrel, Italian parsley, and Ouzo.

Of course you could buy a ticket to NOLA, go to Antoine's and take notes as you order plate after plate of their mysterious specialty, Oysters Rockefeller.

Al Spoler, well known to WYPR listeners as the wine-loving co-host of "Cellar Notes" has had a long-standing parallel interest in cooking as well. Al has said, the moment he started getting serious about Sunday night dinners was the same moment he started getting serious about wine. Over the years, he has benefited greatly from being a member of the Cork and Fork Society of Baltimore, a gentlemen's dining club that serves black tie meals cooked by the members themselves who are some of Baltimore's most accomplished amateur cooks.
As General Partner of Clipper City Brewing Company, L.P., Hugh J. Sisson is among Baltimore's premier authorities on craft brewing and a former manager of the state's first pub brewery, Sissons, located in Federal Hill. A fifth generation Baltimorean, Hugh has been involved in all aspects of craft brewing.