Chesapeake Oyster Lovers’ Handbook — book review
By Susan Elnicki Wade and Bill Wade; 350 pages; trim-size 6″ × 9″; published December 6, 2015 using the CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform; paperback; $25.
The Chesapeake oyster has been around for millions of years and their fossils are found today in the Calvert Cliffs along the Chesapeake Bay. Evidence suggests that humans have been eating oysters for over 100,000 years. In the Chesapeake area (locally known as the DMV, for DC, MD, and VA), they have gone through their ups and downs. Oysters were incredibly plentiful until European colonists arrived, after which time they gradually diminished in numbers. At first, this was due in large part to over-harvesting. Then diseases and changes in the environment also took their tolls (see “Biography of a mollusc” for more information about the history of the Chesapeake oyster).
Spouses Susan Elnicki Wade and Bill Wade wrote and produced the Chesapeake Oyster Lovers’ Handbook. I reviewed another of their books, Crab Decks & Tiki Bars of the Chesapeake Bay, Maryland Third Edition, a few weeks ago (click here to see that review). They also published Crab Decks & Tiki Bars of the Chesapeake Bay, Virginia Second Edition (with a third edition due soon). And, they have another title in the works: Booze on the Bay.
This book follows much the same model as the Crab Decks & Tiki Bars title. Obviously, the authors found a formula they like and are sticking with it. The authors describe the volume as a “guide to everything oyster on the Bay, covering oyster houses, raw bars, aquafarms and bivalve brands in Maryland, Virginia, and Washington, DC.” They go on to note that the book does not attempt to list all of the places you can get oysters in The Bay region. For inclusion, a restaurant or oyster bar must “show a commitment to the emerging oyster scene or oysters are a central theme in their restaurant.”
The Table of Contents looks like this:
- p. v, Introduction
- p. 3, Pearls of Wisdom (four oyster-related articles)
- Chesapeake Oyster Houses & Raw Bars
- p. 17, Maryland
- p. 149, Washington, DC
- p. 201, Virginia
- p. 281, Chesapeake Aquafarms & Oyster Brands
- p. 321, Index to Oyster Houses, Brands & Aquafarms
- p. 327, Chesapeake Oyster Taste Chart
Oyster Houses & Raw Bars
There are lots of maps in the book, because so much of the authors’ approach to the subject is geographic. How would I use this book? To find oysters to eat near where I live or happen to be visiting.
Each section, such as Baltimore, starts with an areal map, with flags indicating where all the businesses are to be found. The flags, labelled with letters, are arranged such that you read the map sort of like reading a page of text: That is, the first business listed is in the upper left, or northwest corner of the map, and the next business (or group of businesses) is then to the right/east, then they move south and west again. The page opposite the map is an index of restaurants, by map letter, then business name, and finally page number. So, if you’re looking for a specific place by name, then you may find it easier to use the Index in the back of the book.
In the directory itself, each business is allotted two-pages. It details:
- Business name and contact information (address, phone, website, etc.)
- A 10-step “Atmosphere Meter” scale, with 1 being casual (indicated by a beer glass) and 10 being formal (indicated by a champagne flute)
- Several paragraphs describing the business, its offerings and environs, along with a photo of the business exterior
- Two maps of the business location
- A large-scale map indicating the location with an oyster-knife icon as a map pin
- An inset small-scale map to give you a big-picture view of the location, where a large X marks the spot
Aquafarms & brands
This section starts with a full-page map on page 282 indicating 13 oyster-growing zones associated with the Chesapeake Bay. A table on page 283 provides details about the zones:
- Zone number and name.
- Salinity levels (salinity being a key ingredient in the taste of the oysters from that zone)
- A description of the geographic extent of the zone.
What follows is a listing of Aquafarms and their Brands, two per page (excepting the last page, which only shows a single company), in alphabetical order, beginning with American Shellfish Company and ending with Winter Harbor Oysters. Each listing includes the logo of each company, contact information, brand(s) of oysters, and their growing zone.
This section begins with the same page as the previous section: a map depicting the growing zones on page 328. On page 329 the table of growing zones is an expanded version of the previous one, featuring flavors associated with each zone, such as saltiness, buttery/creamy, and sweetness. Page 330 shows a tasting wheel. Pages 331 – 337 is a detailed table providing the locations and descriptions of the flavors of the various oyster brands listed in the previous section of the book. This would be especially useful if you’re looking at a chalk-board listing of oysters in a restaurant or oyster bar.
- The authors make an effort to update the company listings with an update page on the book’s website. It includes listings for new places, places that have moved, and those that have closed (it could also use updates to the brands of oysters offered). Of course it isn’t perfect, as they’re tracking a huge territory, but it is a laudable effort.
- The book includes some nice images from old advertising art depicting oysters.
- The extent of the coverage is quite good, though I wish more spots were listed in Southern Maryland.
- The quality of the photographs throughout the book is inconsistent, with some looking good, while many do not.
- The tasting wheel on page 330 has rather small type, and is laid out in such a way so that you have to turn the book in all directions in order to try and read it. Frankly, I wasn’t sure what to make of it.
- Unfortunately, there’s no e-book version of this title.
Like the previous book, the good far outweighs the bad with this one. The writing is engaging. The descriptions of those places I know well — such as Clyde’s at Mark Center, D.C.‘s Oceanaire Seafood Room, and Old Town Alexandria’s Fish Market Restaurant & Raw Bar — are spot-on. I think the data about locations and flavors is very useful. I’d love to have online-access to the taste chart in the back of the book, so I could just consult it from my phone while sitting in a raw bar.
I also like that they mix in some history from time to time, such as how Colonial Beach, VA played a role in the Oyster Wars, as described in the background section on Denson’s Grocery & R&B Oyster Bar. Seeing that name for an oyster bar really got me wondering: does it feature rhythm & blues music, or is R&B a brand of oyster they serve, or what? I thought that the odds were that R&B stands for the names of the folks that run it. So I called Denson’s Grocery and asked. I was told it stands for Rocky & Blaire, the husband and wife owners. ♦