The Origins of Oysters Rockefeller

by François de Mélogue

Recently I had the great pleasure of working with father and son restaurateurs Kaiser and Lee Morcus in reinventing their steakhouse menu at ‘Chop House’, located on Highway 111 in Palm Desert. If you are a bar habitué you may have noticed a lot of mixologists have sections for retro and classic cocktails alongside modern and sometimes very innovative creations. I have sampled forgotten classics like Corpse Reviver (late 19th century) and Police Gazette Cocktail (1901) next to modern takes on Bellini’s and Mai Tai’s to inspired combinations like the Snap Pea Southside. I always thought the same approach would be well suited for restaurants, particularly steakhouses where food expectations are more classically rooted.

One of the dishes I added is Baked Oysters Rockefeller modeled after the original recipe developed in 1899 by Jules Alciatore, son of Antoine’s founder Antoine Alciatore. The story goes that at the time there was a shortage of escargots coming from France and Jules, being a resourceful lad, substituted abundantly available oysters for the hard to get escargot in the classic dish Escargots Bourguignonne. New Orleans recipes always varied from their French cousins through additions of local flavor and culture.

In Roy F. Guste, Jr. book ‘Antoine’s Restaurant’ he offers a recipe for Escargots Bourguignonne made with a sauce of minced parsley, minced green onions, minced garlic and a copious quantity of butter upon which Oysters Rockefeller is thought to be based. Conversely in Delmonico’s Executive Chef Charles Ranhofer’s (chef from 1862 to 1896) recipe for ‘Edible Snails a la Bourguignonne’ printed in his massive tome, The Epicurean circa 1894, we see a more classic approach to the snail dish. He cites butter, parsley, chives, lemon juice and breadcrumbs as the key ingredients.

While sifting through my collection of cook books, I found ‘A Book of Famous Old New Orleans Recipes Used in the South for More Than 200 Years” written in 1900 that gives a very early recorded recipe of the oyster dish. Though the ingredients of the original Oyster Rockefeller recipe have been a closely guarded family secret since its inception, several laboratory analyses have been conducted and concluded a mirroring of ingredients between the two recipes. It is interesting to note how time has changed the original pureed herb combination to creamed spinach and Hollandaise or even Parmesan cream. Recently testing the original version I feel it has more character and bears closer resemblance to its escargot root.

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Mrs. Ella Bentley Arthur writes in ‘Mme. Bégue’s Recipes of Old New Orleans Creole Cookery’, 1937 “this is a dish for which New Orleans is noted and proves an epicurean delight to those who are introduced to it for the first time. Its richness gives it its commonly-used title, but the old-time Creole bon vivant knows it as Huîtres a la Montpelier. The secret of preparing oysters in this fashion has been jealously guarded by the noted restaurateurs of New Orleans, and this recipe was the first ever printed of this unusual and delicious oyster dish.

The sauce for Oysters Rockefeller is made by previously preparing parsley, spinach, celery and onion tops and other greens, in a meat grinder; the greens must be ground very fine; to this add the juice of lemon and melted butter. One tablespoonful of this sauce is poured over each oyster when being taken from the shells, and just before serving.”

The ‘Picayune Creole Cook Book’ from 1902 adds bacon as an important ingredient. ‘Long Island Seafood Cook Book’ written in 1939 gives a variation entitled Oysters, Gourmet Society in which oysters are baked with minced parsley, spinach, spring onions, breadcrumbs, tobacco sauce and butter. The author claims it to be a deviation of the original Rockefeller recipe leaving out the essential absinthe, which was banned in the United States since 1915. Herbsaint replaced absinthe after prohibition, which lasted from 1920 to 1933. Herbsaint, an anise based liquor was created in 1934 by J. Marion Legendre and Reginald Parker who learned how to make Absinthe during World War I.

The Final Word:

“The original recipe is still a secret that I will not divulge. As many times as I have seen recipes printed in books and articles, I can honestly say that I have never found the original outside of Antoine’s. If you care to concoct your version, I would tell you only that the sauce is basically a puree of a number of green vegetables other than spinach.”

Bonne Chance!

Roy F. Guste Jr., great grandson of Jules Alciatore.

To sample this classic oyster dish please come join us for dinner at Chop House, 760.779.9888, located at 74040 Hwy 111, Palm Desert.

Here is our recipe:

Chop House Oysters Rockefeller

ingredients for four servings:

1/2 # Butter

¼ c. Celery, finely chopped

1 bunch Scallions, finely chopped

1/4 c. Parsley, finely chopped

1 T. Worcestershire Sauce

dash of Tabasco Sauce

1/4 cup Pernod

1/2 cup Panko

16 each Oysters

Directions:

Melt butter; add celery, scallions and parsley. Sauté five minutes, or until greens are tender and soft. Add Worcestershire and Tabasco, reduce heat and cook ten minutes. Add Pernod and Panko, cook 5 minutes. Cool. Beat mixture in mixer till light and fluffy. Spoon onto shucked oysters, put shells on rock salt to steady them, bake at 500 degrees till bubbly hot, about five minutes.

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