britain, dining at downton, edwardians, fish, lessons learned, mrs beeton's book of household management, victorians

Dining at Downton: Fried oysters

How many of you watched the Season 3 premiere of Downton Abbey last night? We did, after some technical difficulties, and it was every bit as lavish and funny and swoony as we’d hoped. While a certain someone (cough Josh cough) kept inserting comments about one character’s rumored departure from the show, I was on tenterhooks every time it seemed like things were finally going right for the Crawleys. This show, I tell you! Every time you think it’s going to end happily, someone dies or loses their reputation.

Last night’s episode also provided an inside glimpse at the complicated dining rituals at Downton, courtesy of O’Brien’s clumsy nephew. He’s been hired as a new footman, but since he trained as a hotel waiter, he bungles the dinner service. Instead of offering a dish and allowing each diner to serve him or herself, he tries to place the vegetable or fish directly onto the diner’s plate! Oh, the horror! Who knew that dinner was so fraught with peril?

(Then again, Branson would surely agree with that sentiment.)

For families like the Crawleys, it was fashionable to dine a la russe, or in the Russian style. Rather than serve all courses on the table for diners to help themselves (service a la francaise), staff would bring each course out individually. With the butler supervising, footmen would serve guests from the left, allowing them to take what they wished from the proffered plate.

It seems like a lot of extra work, with too many complicated rules, but that was exactly the point. Dining a la russe allowed hosts and hostesses to show off their wealth–“Look! I can afford this many footmen!”–as well as their social status. The host would give the signal for all guests to eat, stop eating, and for each course to be served. It was the perfect environment for a host accustomed to power.

Not surprisingly, it was also the perfect environment for new footmen to mess up. And though the Crawleys might gloss over the footman’s mistake in front of their guests, that kind of difficulty showed the cracks in a family’s perfect facade.

Josh and I dined in a more modest environment last night (i.e. the couch and coffee table), but our meal was no less elaborate. I bought a dozen oysters from the Matunuck Oyster Bar stand at the farmers’ market, and proceeded to learn quite a lot about how to open oysters without an oyster knife. It’s tricky! In the end, I resorted to heating the oysters in the oven for a few minutes, then prying them open with a butter knife. That did the trick, but it also turned me forever against preparing oysters at home.

This recipe, taken from Mrs Beeton’s Book of Household Management, would have been well-received at the Crawleys’ dinner table. It’s basic, using only a few ingredients (and who knew the Victorians used ketchup?), but the taste is sublime. Buttery, salty, with a hint of the sea.

And thankfully, Josh and I don’t care if one of us bungles the dinner service.

Fried Oysters
(adapted from Mrs Beeton’s Book of Household Management)

1 dozen oysters, scrubbed
2 tbsp butter
1 tsp ketchup
1 tsp lemon juice

Open the oysters. If you need to do it the MacGyver way, heat the oven to 400 F. Set the scrubbed oysters in a pan in the oven for 5-7 minutes, then dunk them in a bowl of ice water and drain. Hold each oyster in the palm of your hand, deep shell down, and use a butter knife to pry the hinge of the oyster apart. Drain the liquid into a bowl and scrape out the oyster meat into the same bowl.

Heat the oysters and their liquid in a small pot until boiling. Boil one minute. Drain the liquid. Heat the butter in a small frying pan over medium heat until sizzling, then cook the drained oysters for 3-4 minutes. At the end of cooking, stir in the ketchup and lemon juice until oysters are evenly coated. Serve immediately.


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