Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Oysters Rockefeller

With the abundance of oysters available to the New Orleans chef, it's no surprise that Ralph Brennan's New Orleans Seafood Cookbook features more than 10 recipes starring this fruit of the sea. Among the most famous of oyster dishes is Oysters Rockefeller, which is featured on page 80.

Oysters Rockefeller was created in 1899 by a New Orleans chef named Jules Alciatore. His great grandson, Roy F. Guste, Jr., writes at foodreference.com that his ancestor created the dish after having difficulty procuring the necessary European snails for cooking. Being unable to get the desired snails, Alciatore decided to look closer to home for a more reliable supply of product, choosing gulf oysters as his substitute. He created a rich sauce that was green in color and in naming the dish, chose the name Rockefeller as an exemplar of "rich." At the time the dish was created, John D. Rockefeller was the famous robber baron of Standard Oil Company and at the height of his fame as a capitalist and philanthropist.

Rockefeller came from humble beginnings, first getting his start in business acting as an assistant bookkeeper for Hewitt and Tuttle, produce shippers and commission merchants in 1855. The Rockefeller Archive's biography tells us that Rockefeller became involved in oil refinery in 1863 with partners Maurice Clark and Samuel Andrews. In 1870, Rockefeller and assorted partners created Standard Oil Company with the company being organized into a trust in 1882. By the 1890s, it's estimated that Standard Oil owned 75% of the petroleum business in America. According to trivia-library.com's study of the richest people in history, when Rockefeller retired from active leadership of Standard Oil in 1896, its estimated his fortune was worth around $200 million.

His tendency to philanthropy was there from his earliest days in business when he would tithe 10% of his paycheck to the church. Wikipedia.com lists his many philanthropic enterprises. He favored educational and public health causes as well as basic sciences and the arts. While he gave money to recognized institutions such as Harvard, Columbia, Vassar and Yale, he also helped small colleges become major institutions such as the University of Chicago which started life as a small baptist college and became a world-class university by 1900 with Rockefeller's help.

While a northerner, his programs had great impact in the South. In 1884, he was the major financial backer for an Atlanta college for African-American women that became Spelman College. In 1902, he created the General Education Board. Designed to help education at all levels across the country, its biggest impact was in the pioneering schools for African-Americans in the South. His 1909 Rockefeller Sanitary Commission was a key component in wiping out hookworm disease in the South.

While he gave huge donations throughout his life, totalling about $550 million dollars, he was noted for his more playful habit of giving out dimes to children though he switched to nickels during the Great Depression. Cheekily, he even passed dimes to President Herbert Hoover and fellow mogul Harvey Firestone.

While some recipes call for a puree of green vegetables to create the green-colored sauce, Ralph Brennan's New Orleans Seafood Cookbook uses spinach to give the dish its signature color.

foodreference.com: "The Real Oysters Rockefeller"
The Rockefeller Archive: "John D. Rockefeller" 09/97
Trivia-Library.com: "Richest People in History: John D. Rockefeller"
Wikipedia: "John D. Rockefeller" 04/28/08
photo courtesy of zzzack, used under this Creative Commons license

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