Many of Chicago’s earliest restaurants served East Coast oysters packed in sawdust-filled barrels, sent by rail to the Midwest, unrefrigerated for weeks or even months. Sometimes people got sick from oysters gone bad, and this probably helped lead to decades when fresh oysters were somewhat rare in Chicago. During the past ten years or so, all that has changed, and oysters are now a regular part of many Chicago — and some Oak Park — menus.
September marks the beginning of oyster season based on the folk wisdom that oysters should be eaten only during months that contain an “r.” Reason for that rule, in part, is that in warmer months, before refrigeration, it was harder to keep oysters in good condition all the way from the coasts to, for instance, Chicago. Refrigeration now allows almost anything to be shipped anywhere at any time, rendering the “r” month rule largely – though not completely – obsolete. The other reason people might avoid oysters during warmer months is that oysters spawn during warmer months, and spawning oysters tend to be a little looser, flabbier and a less tasty than oysters harvested during the cooler months.
For reasons such as these, the cooler month of September is the first big month for oysters, so you’re seeing many places offering them…and some places celebrating them. The biggest celebration of oysters in Chicago is undoubtedly Oyster Fest hosted by Shaw’s Crab House (21 E. Hubbard, Chicago), now in its 29th year. Taking place October 5-10, this 10-day celebration features happy hour oysters every day (50 cents each!), as well as competitive eating events and many menu specials. Shaw’s goes through a lot of oysters, and that’s a very good thing: as with all seafood, freshness is key, and you want to eat oysters at a place that regularly receives them fresh and runs through them quickly. Shaw’s, which goes through many thousands of oysters every week, usually has a rotating menu of twelve oysters, six from both coasts, expertly shucked.
Many oyster preparations now involve dressing the oyster with various condiments, and of course many oysters usually come to the table with cocktail sauce or mignonette or both. Last year, I talked with Rowan Jacobson, author of “The Essential Oyster,” about using either of these two traditional sauces with oysters, a practice that oyster enthusiasts consider anathema because either condiment can overwhelm the delicate flavor of oyster. “I used to be a real hard-ass about this, but I’ve mellowed,” said Jacobson, “Both sauces eliminate the flavor of the oyster entirely, so if your goal is to fully experience the oyster, they just get in the way. On the other hand, both sauces taste great, so there’s nothing wrong with using them and enjoying them for that, although it’s a pricey way to enjoy cocktail sauce. In college, I used to eat a lot of “poor man’s oysters”—saltines with horseradish and cocktail sauce. They’re a lot cheaper and pretty tasty with beer.”
Oysters, though they are showing up on more and more on Chicagoland menus, are still a hard-sell for some. Erik Williams of Carnivore told us that the local Oak Park market is not yet warmed up to oysters, and he encourages more people to eat them by offering an oyster happy hour ($1.25) every day from 3 pm until closing. Across the street at Poor Phil’s, you can get oysters ($1) at the bar from 11am – 5pm.
It’s oyster season; get out there and eat some. You have only until late April 2018, to enjoy them “in season.”