Oyster Soup – Historical Context
The Oyster Soup recipe in Mary Randolph’s The Virginia Housewife would have most likely been one of the most popular of her recipes due to the regional and national popularity of oysters. The “American” oyster, the Crassostrea Virginica, was so-named because of its abundance in the Chesapeake Bay area, specifically Virginia. While the oyster cannot be considered “abundant” today, writings as early as the early seventeenth century mention the vast amount of oysters that could be found.
Francis Michel wrote in 1701 about oysters filling the banks of the Chesapeake and recalled, “[The oysters] surpass those in England by far in size, indeed, they are four times as large”. Archaeologists have found evidence suggesting the presence of oysters in the area as long as 4500 years ago, where early Native Americans would deposit oyster, and other shellfish, shells after use. European settlers were already familiar with oysters when they came to the Chesapeake area, as the Greeks, Romans, Celts, and others had cultivated oysters centuries prior. As Michel noted, the English were certainly accustomed to oysters by the beginning of eighteenth century.
By the nineteenth century, demand for oysters had grown to national proportions, particularly among emerging American cities. By that time, Northerners had developed dredgers to collect millions of oysters from deep waters. After exhausting New England oysters, they sought to take advantage of the Chesapeake’s abundant supply; Virginia subsequently banned the use of dredgers in 1811. Considering the vast appeal, and the availability of the oyster in the Chesapeake Bay area in the early nineteenth century, Mary Randolph’s Oyster Soup recipe would have been prized among her readers.
“Chesapeake Bay Oyster History.” Oyster Company of Virginia. Oyster Company of Virginia. Web. 1 Dec. 2015. <http://oysterva.com/oyster-history.html>.
Excerpt of Original Recipe The Virginia Housewife