Oysters have been cultivated for at least 2,000 years and have long been a favorite of Americans. According to John Mariani, author of "The Dictionary of American Food and Drink," by the eighteenth century the urban poor were sustained by little more than bread and oysters.
Oysters Rockefeller, one of New Orlean's most famous dishes, was created in 1899 by Jules Alciatore, son of the founder of Antoine's Restaurant. Named after John D. Rockefeller, the tycoon, it's a dish of baked oysters on the half shell topped with a rich (like Rockefeller) sauce and served on a bed of rock salt.
More than twenty years later, according to author and food historian John Egerton, a Frenchman named Arnaud Cazeneuve started Arnaud's Restaurant in the French Quarter of New Orleans and created Oysters Bienville. It consists of baked oysters on the half shell topped with a sherry-flavored bechamel sauce mixed with sautéed chopped shrimp, shallots, and garlic. The dish was named for Jean-Baptiste Le Moyne, sieur de Bienville, the second colonial governor of Louisiana .
Opening oysters takes a little experience. If you don't have an oyster knife, use one with a strong stainless steel blade. Knives not made specifically for the job may break, and metals other than stainless steel might leave the taste of metal on the oyster. Wear a heavy glove to protect your hand from cuts. After scrubbing under cold running water, hold the oyster firmly with one hand, rounded side down so less liquid is lost when opened. Insert the blade of the knife between the shells, near the hinge. Twist the blade to open the shells, then cut the muscle joining the shells together. Slip the blade underneath the oyster to detach it from the shell. Remove any pieces of shell stuck on the oyster.
Steaming them for a few seconds or heating them in a medium oven for about 30 seconds might make them a little easier to open (the heat softens the adductor muscle). Never soak oysters in water, because they can die if they open and their liquid drains out.
Oysters are often served raw or deep-fried in the South and are a common addition to soups, casseroles, and dressings. The following recipe is typical of many Southern fried oyster recipes.
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