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The snack that is a pearl of a bar food
A brief history of Louisville's rolled oysters
Hello, Snackers. Today on Snack Stack:
Take a raw Chesapeake oyster. Coat it in a batter made with egg and cornmeal, roll it in crushed crackers. Deep-fry it. Serve it two or three per order.
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Louisville, Kentucky, USA
A decade or so ago, a new seafood restaurant opened in Minneapolis, where I live, thousands of miles from the nearest ocean. The owner was one of the town’s big-name chefs, and he was proud of his long-established relationships with fresh seafood providers, including boat captains—he could get the good stuff, and fast. Some people might not expect truly fresh seafood in Minneapolis, he noted, but “airplanes exist.”
Rolled oysters are early version of the same concept. Louisville, too, is nowhere near a coast, so it may seem like an unlikely place for an oyster dish to originate in 1884. But boats exist and so do railroad cars and so does ice, and if you pack everything right and keep the process moving quickly, you can take a load of oysters from the Chesapeake Bay west along the rails and then to the Ohio River, and soon enough you’ve got fresh—or at least pretty fresh seafood—in Kentucky, even in the nineteenth century. (If you want to go down the rabbit hole of how ice and refrigeration changed how we eat, that’s a whooole fascinating topic to read later.)
The man behind rolled oysters was one Phillip Mazzoni, an Italian immigrant who owned a bar called (naturally) Mazzoni’s at the corner of Third and Market streets in downtown Louisville. There’s some uncertainty about the exact origins of the recipe—even the fifth-generation owner, Greg Haner, wasn’t sure if it came from Italy or not, he said in a 2008 interview—but rolled oysters were, and are, decidedly their own Louisville-specific thing.
As a gimmick to get patrons to buy more beer and linger a bit longer, Mazzoni’s offered a free hot dog, boiled egg, or rolled oyster with every beer purchase. (You’ve been to a happy hour? Same idea!) When Prohibition came along, beer sales basically went away, and Mazzoni’s started charging for the food, but even so, rolled oysters remained a popular item—people were willing to pay. You can see the quality of the product in Haner’s detailed description of how it’s made:
If you talk a little bit about that rolling technique realize you lightly dust an oyster in a cracker meal breading, and you set them off to the side so they can set up, and then after you set them up you create a—a dip of—of oyster liquor and some spices and—and flour and as you pick up three to four oysters, you dip it in this pastinga as it was called; some people call it a dip, and you drag it into your cracker meal and then you encase it in cracker meal but you pick it up in your hand and you sort of turn it three-quarters of a turn, not touching it too much because you don’t want it to be heavy so it’s really a rolling process that you need to sort of flip it around in your hand without touching it too many times …
This keeps going for a while, but you get the gist, and you can watch his full description here. Point is, this may be a bar snack, but making it isn’t just some quick, mindless task. But because it seemed pretty basic, and it was a bar food, rolled oysters were never a particularly high-priced item, and the profit margins were never particularly great.
Haner tried to expand in 2000, buying a bar called Flabby’s in Louisville’s historic German neighborhood, Schnitzelburg (real name, not a joke), and added rolled oysters to the menu there. Alas, it didn’t stick—Flabby’s closed in 2013, five years after Mazzoni’s shuttered—“both the recession and surging oyster prices ultimately caused the restaurant to shutter,” Haner told NPR’s The Salt. You can’t buy rolled oysters in the original recipe anymore, and over the last decade, The Salt reports, other Louisville restaurants have struggled to keep their own versions of dish on the menus because the profit margins are so small—even with a beloved dish, the world’s not your oyster, you know?
Still, rolled oysters endure as Louisville bar snack. They might not be as iconic as, say, bourbon or Derby Pie, but you can find a video about rolled oysters on the Louisville tourism website, shout-outs on the Travel Channel, and Yelp lists of the best purveyors of rolled oysters in town. And if you want to try the original Mazzoni’s recipe, here’s a video telling you how to do it. Beware: “This is messy.”
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Will you like it?
Southern Foodways Alliance: Oral history with Greg Haner (2008)
LouisvilleHotBytes.com: “Mazzoni’s is Gone, But the Rolled Oyster Lives”
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