1971 was the year when smoked oysters became socially unacceptable. Playing Stork in the eponymous movie, actor Bruce Spence single-handedly destroyed the smoked oyster’s social status by extracting one from his nose at a cocktail party.
Oysters are among the oldest foods known, with evidence that humans were consuming them from neolithic times. Middens around Australia’s coasts confirm that Aboriginal people were avid eaters of oysters and the early colonists were quick to harvest them from natural beds – so much so that by the 1860s these beds were seriously depleted. Oysters were the food of the poor as well as of the well-to-do and in the late 19th century oyster bars proliferated in towns and cities across Australia.
This history of the smoked oyster is less clear. While Edward Abbott, in his English & Australian Cookery Book, published in 1864, talks about “Oysters pickled, stewed, baked, roasted, fried and scalloped – oysters made into soups, patties and puddings – oysters with condiments, and without condiments…” he doesn’t mention oysters smoked.
It seems the smoked oyster as we know it – in tins – may have made its way to Australia via America, where references to Smoked Oysters in olive oil appear as early as 1927. The delicacy – for it was certainly regarded as a luxury food – seems to have had its origins in the orient. Various newspaper reports in America in the 1880s and 1890s refer to smoked oysters as a Chinese dish.
The Detroit Free Press, in 1881, briefly noted that “The Chinese in San Francisco enjoy smoked oysters, a string of which was brought to this city by George W. Osborne, and is now on exhibition at Gillman Brothers’ restaurant.” Several contemporary newspaper reports note smoked oysters as being among the principal articles of trade in Chinese groceries.
It seems these oysters were first dried, then smoked. Describing one New York merchant, one report says “The oysters he receives from China in the half barrel, dried and smoked. As they come they resemble somewhat dried apples or peaches…. The Chinaman says the oysters are preserved in this way by first being dried in the sun and then smoked with seaweed which, when burning, has a smell like the oyster soup.”
It took some time for the canned variety to appear. The Statesman Journal from Salem, Oregon carried an advertisement in 1935 offering “Geisha Smoked Oysters in olive oil (Something different and very tasty)”. The Los Angeles Times, in 1936, refers to them as “a new appetiser”. The Geisha brand suggests a Japanese origin, and we find this confirmed in the Brisbane Courier Mail in 1945, when the paper obtained a tin, purportedly from an American military canteen providing food supplies captured from Japan.
Although there is an early reference to imported smoked oysters in the Sydney Morning Herald in 1936, it seems they didn’t make much of an impact in Australia until around 1954. At that time they were still regarded as ‘rare foods’ or, as one advertisement put it “an extra special party savoury”.
The shrivelled, oily morsels went on to become a favourite at cocktail parties throughout the 1950s and ’60s, ideally atop a Cheds cheese biscuit. That is, until Stork, lampooning the self-consciously trendy social set, gave them a rather unsavoury connotation.