Posted Online: Jan. 02, 2013, 1:40 pm
At long last, the world is his (seasoned) oyster (cracker)
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By Frank Mullen III
Oh, what a wonderful year this will be.
When my wife and I got home from Hy-Vee yesterday, she pulled a plastic package out of a grocery bag. It looked like urinalysis cup full of broken saltines.
"What's that?" I asked.
"Seasoned oyster crackers," Jo said. "They're popular in the Midwest."
After 10 years, I've become pretty familiar with Midwestern cuisine. No one enjoys fresh sweet corn more than I do, and I'm a fair judge of its freshness and flavor.
I've sampled previously unknown meat products, including bratwurst and pulled pork. (I have no idea what pulled pork is, and I don't want to know. When I was a kid, my big sister told me what went into Jell-O, and I didn't eat dessert again until I was 40.)
But I'd never heard of seasoned oyster crackers. The name reminded me of the dangers of leaving a nine-year-old in the kitchen unsupervised -- you wind up with deep-fried Triscuits and mashed Oreo soup.
But I decided to give the crackers a try. The taste was astounding. Glorious, in fact. I swear that no sooner had the first seasoned oyster cracker touched my tongue than a double-line of French horn players in red velvet tunics marched into the kitchen playing the opening flourish from Monteverdi's "Royal Fanfare in E-flat," and the ceiling opened to reveal a host of angels invoking blessings upon the inventor of seasoned oyster crackers.
It's surprising that these crackers can be so wonderfully enjoyable when oysters themselves are so hideously disgusting. Because some Midwestern readers may never have eaten an oyster, let me briefly describe the experience. Those with weak stomachs are advised to skip the following paragraph.
Long ago, I was dared to eat an oyster in one of those situations that involves honor, pride and beer. I assure you, the oyster in question was not some teensy tidbit buried in a half-pound of baked bread crumbs, but a fresh oyster in its native shell. What I'm saying here, friends, is that you eat fresh oysters alive. Like I said, honor and beer were involved. Thirty years later, I still get a sickly, salty taste in the back of my mouth just thinking about it. The sensation of a squishy gob of living bivalve sliding down your throat is much like that of drinking deeply the contents of a spittoon, if you can imagine that, and I hope you can't.
Yet eating seasoned oyster crackers is a delight. It is joy. When the Lord rained bread on the people of Israel, the crumbs landed in Illinois.
And, somehow, I was the last to find out. Jo proved the enduring popularity of this snack by picking a random church cookbook from the kitchen drawer -- I think it was "Favorite Recipes of the Presbyterian Plowmen Ladies Auxiliary, 1923," which shows just how long the fun has been going on behind my back -- and, sure enough, she found not one, but two recipes for seasoned oyster crackers. They, and the many other recipes I've read online, indicate that dill weed and salad dressing are the key ingredients. Some recipes call specifically for Hidden Valley Ranch dressing.
So, here's my plan for the new year. I'm going to find that hidden valley, rent a moving van and move there with my recliner, a barrel of dill weed and a truckload of oyster crackers.
If they have internet access, I'll be in touch next week. Otherwise, remember me as the guy who was always slow to catch on, but when he did, jumped right to the front of the parade.
Frank Mullen III of Aledo is a former Navy band leader.