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HISTORY LIVES: Oyster Shell Lane

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Running behind the Doylestown Inn and adjacent buildings was an alley named Oyster Shell Lane, so called because surrounding restaurants threw oyster shells there in bad weather to give substance to the mud.

Oysters were an affordable and popular dish in the early days of Doylestown, and their savory memory lingered on into the mid-20th century, as described by M.F.K. Fisher in the well-known book, The Art of Eating:

“Probably the best oyster stew I ever ate was at the Doylestown Inn. It may have been so good because I was escaped from a long ride, cold enough to make my eyeballs hurt. Maybe it was because I was pleased by the narrow dark room and the farmers sitting quietly at the bar and the smell of the place. I was happy to be there for those reasons and had long waited for the day, eager from tales I had heard. So the stew tasted better than any I had ever eaten, because of all that and because it was so good anyway.

“It was made in three copper saucepans, as I remember, by a thin young-old man who said nonchalantly that oyster stews were pretty good in Dublin, but couldn’t touch his, of course. He strolled up and down the narrow gangplank behind the counter and talked and put a platter of crackers and a hideous glass shaker of dark sherry in front of me, and all the time kept his eyes on the three pans, shaking them and pouring as he went. In the smallest he put some butter from a big cool pat, and let it froth up once and then rest on the back of the stove. In the next he put oysters, fresh from their shells which he tossed into a bin under the counter. In the third, which was deeper and more a real saucepan than a kind of skillet, like the others, he put about a pint of milk and let it heat until it shivered on top. He kept an eye sharply on all three, so that the butter and the oysters and the milk never got beyond him. As soon as the butter had frothed and settled he poured it quickly over the oysters and started skimming them around and around in the pan. In about one minute, not three or even five as so many recipes will say, he whiffed them past his questioning nose and then put in the hot milk, which was just on the point of steaming. He then put in red pepper and in a flash, before I realized it the oyster stew I had so long talked about and waited for was under my nose, and the young-old man stood watching me.”

Mary Frances Kennedy Fisher was a prolific and well-respected writer of the mid-20th century. She believed that eating well was just one of the “arts of life,” and her books deal primarily with food, considering it from many aspects: preparation, natural history, culture, and philosophy.

Doylestownhistorical.org


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