One Hun­dred Years of Oys­ters

SAVEUR - - Contents - BY C. MOR­GAN BABST

A cen­tury af­ter open­ing, a New Or­leans restau­rant is still turn­ing out its fa­mous fried oys­ter loaf

in the an­tique kitchen of his fam­ily’s restau­rant, C.J. Gerdes slips a hand­ful of corn­floured oys­ters into one of the six black­ened pots on the stove. The fat froths like sea foam. Two min­utes later, he pulls them out, their crisp coats crin­kled and golden. Sand­wiched be­tween thick, buttered slices of “pan bread”—casamento’s ver­sion of Texas toast—the oys­ters crackle as you bite into them, the crust crum­bling down into the creamy cen­ters.

I’ve been eat­ing at Casamento’s, a New Or­leans in­sti­tu­tion that turns 100 this year, since I was a child, but, some­how, I’ve never asked what C.J. fries his seafood in.

“It used to be we couldn’t tell peo­ple, or they’d make a face,” Linda Gerdes, C.J’S wife, says with a laugh. “But then lard came back in style.”

At the turn of the 20th cen­tury, C.J.’S grand­fa­ther, Joe Casamento, trav­eled to New Or­leans from Us­tica, a small Ital­ian is­land four hours by boat from Si­cily, and fell into food ser­vice. Mov­ing from job to job across the city, he be­came con­vinced that he could build a bet­ter restau­rant. Many places that served deep-fried seafood never both­ered to change their grease, and some over-bat­tered their oys­ters—drown­ing them in eggs and milk—be­fore fry­ing.

“He thought that was blas­phemy,” C.J. tells me. “You’re gonna wash the brine off an oys­ter? No, Joe was an old-school Ital­ian. Ev­ery­thing sim­ple, so you can taste your food.”

What Joe hated most, though, was how much food was wasted. New Or­leans French bread—the long, soft loaves used for po’boys—would grow hard by the af­ter­noon. The pil­lowy white sand­wich bread from Sun­beam Bak­ery, how­ever, only be­came more tooth­some the longer it sat. Joe would have Sun­beam pull loaves off the con­veyor belts be­fore they hit the slicer and cut them into thick slabs in Casamento’s kitchen. Brushed with but­ter, the bread turned golden brown un­der the broiler while the oys­ters fried.

Thus, Casamento’s oys­ter loaf came to be—a thing so sim­ple, it seems silly. Just oys­ters, white bread, a dash of hot sauce, and a squeeze of le­mon. You couldn’t even get let­tuce and tomato on it while Joe was alive. It sits at the heart of an equally sim­ple Cre­ole Ital­ian menu—oys­ter stew, spaghetti and meat­balls, seafood gumbo—that has hardly changed since 1919. But that sim­plic­ity is what has kept this restau­rant run­ning for a cen­tury, through four gen­er­a­tions of Joe’s fam­ily, and three gen­er­a­tions of mine.

while we wait in line with the other reg­u­lars for a ta­ble, my daugh­ter begs to be lifted onto my fa­ther’s hip to watch the oys­ter shuck­ing, just as I used to when I was a child. With a swift slip of his knife, An­thony O’neal Rogers, who’s been shuck­ing oys­ters here for 22 years, pries one open, tee­ter­ing the blade be­tween the two halves of the shell. My daugh­ter stares, search­ing for pearls. Arnold takes down a foggy plas­tic tub from the wall be­hind him, which is hung with T-shirts au­to­graphed by the likes of Ni­cole Kid­man, Jimmy Carter, and Guy Fieri. He rat­tles its con­tents—about a dozen pearls the size of coarse salt—then plucks one with his fin­gers and places it in my daugh­ter’s palm.

An­thony can shuck oys­ters at blaz­ing speed when he’s put to it, but C.J.’S un­cle, Joseph Casamento—named af­ter his fa­ther— was even faster. C.J. tells of a time when he, Joseph, and Robert Wash­ing­ton, An­thony’s pre­de­ces­sor, raced to shuck a dozen. Joseph beat them both, open­ing all 12 in 45 sec­onds.

Casamento’s was one of the first restau­rants my mother ever brought me to as a baby, and Joseph’s gloved hand cup­ping an ice-cold oys­ter is one of my ear­li­est mem­o­ries. In those days, C.J.’S mother, Mary Ann, served our din­ners. Her pic­ture now hangs on the wall be­hind the oys­ter bar, just be­low the au­to­graphed T-shirts. It’s 1919, and she is a lit­tle girl in loose curls, be­ing held se­curely by her aproned fa­ther as she sits on the front counter of her fam­ily’s new restau­rant. Her feet in their lit­tle black booties swing for the cam­era. The tile floor un­der Joe Casamento’s feet—long mo­saic rows of red and green leaves—is still there, and only a lit­tle worn now, a cen­tury on.

Thirty years af­ter that photo was taken, in 1949, Joe de­cided to tile the walls too, lin­ing his restau­rant top to bot­tom, in­side and out, with so much green and white tile that he had to source it from four dif­fer­ent sup­pli­ers. Since tiling the restau­rant would take nearly three months, Joe sched­uled the job for sum­mer, when oys­ters weren’t at their best and busi­ness was light. That was when Casamento’s started clos­ing

3 Fry the oys­ters: Line a bak­ing sheet or plat­ter with pa­per tow­els and set it by the stove. In a large, heavy-bot­tomed pot fit­ted with a deep-fry ther­mome­ter, add enough melted lard or oil to reach 4 inches up the sides of the pot. Be­gin pre­heat­ing over medium-high heat.

4 While the oil is pre­heat­ing, pre­pare the first batch of oys­ters: In a shal­low bowl, whisk the corn flour and 2 ta­ble­spoons of salt. Work with 10 oys­ters at a time: Dredge them in the flour mix­ture, press­ing it onto the oys­ters to cover, then shake gen­tly to re­move any ex­cess. When the oil reaches 350°F, add the pre­pared oys­ters in batches, and cook, stir­ring oc­ca­sion­ally with a spi­der strainer or slot­ted me­tal spoon, un­til golden brown, about 2 min­utes. Trans­fer the oys­ters to the bak­ing sheet as you con­tinue cook­ing the re­main­ing oys­ters.

5 While the last few batches of oys­ters are fry­ing, broil the bread, turn­ing once, un­til golden on both sides, about 1–5 min­utes per side.

6 Spread 4 of the toast slices with a ta­ble­spoon of the pre­pared sauce. Spread each of the re­main­ing 4 slices with a ta­ble­spoon of may­on­naise. Place 10 oys­ters on each of the sauce-topped toasts, then add a slice of tomato, a few leaves of let­tuce, and the re­main­ing toasts. Serve with pickle spears, le­mon quar­ters, and hot sauce, if de­sired.

ev­ery sum­mer, a sched­ul­ing quirk that adds to New Or­leans’ sea­sonal rhythm. “At that time,” C.J. tells me, “we were open Tues­day through Sun­day, dou­ble-shifts, and Joe en­joyed that time off, so we just kept do­ing it. It wasn’t un­til about five years ago that I talked to Linda and I said, ‘I’ve never been any­where in the win­ter­time!’”

The tile also ac­counts for the fact that de­spite the restau­rant’s daily fry­ing, the place never smells of grease. Ev­ery May, when the restau­rant closes for the sea­son, the staff climbs up on lad­ders and scrubs ev­ery square inch clean.

It was dur­ing Casamento’s an­nual sum­mer va­ca­tion in 2005 that Hur­ri­cane Ka­t­rina hit New Or­leans. As the storm ap­proached the city, Joseph evac­u­ated with a friend to Vicks­burg, Mis­sis­sippi, while C.J. and Linda took a sched­uled va­ca­tion to Las Ve­gas.

“I had talked to Joseph that day,” C.J. says, “and he was in a panic, think­ing we were go­ing to lose the restau­rant, think­ing that thing is a Cat­e­gory 5, and ev­ery­thing he owned was up­stairs.” Joseph had been born in the apart­ment above the restau­rant, and af­ter a tour in the Pa­cific dur­ing World War II, he never lived any­where else. The ex­pe­ri­ence was too much for him: “I got a call later that night say­ing that Joseph had died in the ho­tel room. He’d had a heart at­tack.”

Joseph’s was one of the many un­counted ca­su­al­ties of Ka­t­rina, his death caused by the stress of the evac­u­a­tion and the levee breaks. C.J. won­ders if Joseph would have had the strength to re­open the restau­rant had he sur­vived. The roof was dam­aged, and much of the equip­ment had to be re­placed. But de­spite the ex­pense, and hav­ing to drive back and forth be­tween New Or­leans and Ba­ton Rouge to han­dle the trans­fer of the es­tate, C.J. lit his stove again on Novem­ber 5, 2005, while half the city was still dark.

“The tim­ing worked out per­fectly,” C.J. says. The fish­eries dis­rupted by the storm had fi­nally re­opened. “Oys­ters had come back in just the week be­fore.”

Re­turn­ing home that fall from New York, where I’d landed dur­ing the evac­u­a­tion, the neon pink of the Casamento’s sign throbbed like a heart­beat over Mag­a­zine Street. I pushed through the fa­mil­iar door, its Vene­tian blinds askew over the win­dow, shak­ing with re­lief. If the oys­ter beds were back, if C.J. and Linda were back, if Casamento’s was back—maybe there was a chance we’d all re­turn some­day.

Linda greeted us, led us to our ta­ble, and took our reg­u­lar or­der. The oys­ter loaf was medicine made of bread and salt and fry—the first meal I’d been able to fin­ish since the storm made land­fall. As I stepped up into the kitchen to hug C.J. and thank him, I was care­ful not to slip on the corn flour that once again dusted the tile.

When my fam­ily sits down for din­ner, we never get menus. Linda places beers on the ta­ble, lit­tle glasses clang­ing on the bot­tles’ necks like bells. “Dozen raws, dozen char­broils. French fries, ex­tra crispy. Soft-shell crab for you?” Linda asks my mother, then rat­tles off the rest of our or­der, point­ing her pen at each of us in turn. “Oys­ter loaf, shrimp loaf, oys­ter loaf, oys­ter loaf, oys­ter loaf dressed.” This last loaf is for my hus­band. He likes let­tuce and tomato on his sand­wich, and we mock him for it ev­ery time.

Our ways are as cal­ci­fied as those of Casamento’s it­self (which is say­ing some­thing), and the oys­ter loaf sat­is­fies as it al­ways has. The restau­rant is a place ab­solved from time— a cru­cible of com­mu­nity, where the walls wipe clean and lard never goes out of style.

Clock­wise from far left: The oys­ter loaf is tra­di­tion­ally served plain, but you can get let­tuce, tomato, and mayo if you ask; Linda Gerdes presents dressed loaves to hun­gry din­ers; the orig­i­nal floor tiles date from 1919; pulling fried oys­ters from a pot of boil­ing lard.

Clock­wise from above: The Gerdes fam­ily—c.j., daugh­ter Nikki, and wife Linda; of­fer­ings at Casamento’s in­clude oys­ters on the half shell, spaghetti and meat­balls (ev­ery night ex­cept Fri­day), and the oys­ter loaf; condi­ments for mix­ing your own ta­ble­side cock­tail sauce.

Clock­wise from left: An­thony O’neal Rogers can shuck a dozen oys­ters in less than a minute; oys­ters get dredged sim­ply in corn flour; soft­shell crabs are avail­able in sea­son; a lunch guest digs in to a loaf and a root beer.

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