Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Seafood, Class, and Region

A somewhat strange revelation from a young Northeasterner in Savannah:
Until last week, I have mostly eaten oysters raw, on the half shell, and once in a glass of champagne (only sort of on purpose). They were the kind of food associated with dinner jackets, Ibsen plays, or Grand Central station. The first time I drove by the barbecue/seafood/whatever else store by my house in Savannah and saw them selling hundred-pound sacks of oysters, I was a bit confused. I'm surprised it took me a month and a half of living in Savannah to figure out that like most other things in Georgia, oysters are great fried.
It's hard for me imagine anyone... even a fresh out of college Yalie... not knowing that fried oysters exist. However, that may be due to growing up near the Chesapeake Bay, where, while not an iconic local favorite, they're not uncommon. I suppose if I grew up in New York City or Chicago it might never occur to me that something so expensive would be deep fried and served between two pieces of bread.... but I didn't, and I have a deep affection for the fried soft shell crab sandwich, so a Po' boy seems perfectly sensible.

I guess this is just another example of how where you grow up shapes your perception of what's "high class"... especially in seafood. Similar to the author in the piece, I always thought of lobster as being something just for fancy restaurants and special dinners, but up in Maine nondescript shacks serve them up by the cartload onto picnic tables. Whereas, even most Marylanders think of crabs as being expensive and special (and they are), if you live on the water you can catch your own dinner pretty quickly for nothing more than your time and some chicken necks. It leads to a different mentality... where things tend to get fried up and put on white bread.

Lobster is quite plentiful, as Mainers are careful with their lifeblood... but you wonder how long some of these regional seafood traditions can continue if we don't do reverse some of the damage we've done. Especially in the Chesapeake, sustainable oyster farming isn't enough... you've got to bring back the population and put some pretty hard limits down. At least there seems some hope.