Eldon Willing Prepares Oyster Feast For Watermen
The Daily Times
CHANCE, Md. (AP) — Among the oil cans, ailing rusty diesel engines and one beast of an air compressor in the workshop at Scott’s Cove Marina, mechanic Eldon “Chef Emeril” Willing creates culinary magic.
It is “arster day” at the marina that Willing and his uncle, Jack, own and operate.
Perhaps once a week, the two host a free, spontaneous luncheon for watermen and workers gathered at the marina. The recent menu featured single-fried oysters and Smith Island cake. He didn’t make the cake, but the oysters, those perfectly fried, light, crispy, crunchy, brown oysters, are making his impromptu tour de force soirΘes legendary.
Just hours before, in another room, Willing wore thick, black, shiny rubber gloves to shuck 3 pints of rough, dark-gray oysters, their shells covered with spats and barnacles. They are the Chesapeake Bay’s version of chicken eggs, putty-colored bivalve yolks nestled in thick, crusty shells.
“These oysters came right out of the (Tangier) Sound this morning, as fresh as you can get,” he said.
“My dad gave me a shucking lesson when I was 15. When I was in high school, I was bringing a couple of my teachers oysters. It was taking a lot of oysters to keep my grades up, and he said if I was going to give them all those oysters, I would have to learn how to shuck them,” he said, laughing.
Willing sampled one of the raw oysters. After prying the shell open, he lightly scraped the underside of the shells to release the meaty oyster with his knife and pulled the limp bivalve at knife point from its shell citadel.
Tilting his head back, Willing raised the living, dripping, shapeless oyster just above his anxious lips and, with an ever-so-polite slurp, whisked the delicacy over his eager tongue. It slipped smoothly down the hatch, as it were, like the devil in silk pajamas.
Jonathan Swift had it right, when, in 1738 he wrote, “He was a bold man that first ate an oyster.”
Willing’s eyes became brighter, his smile broader, and his face said “divine satisfaction,” all, no doubt, the first reactions to the power of the salty-sweet aphrodisiac of the bay.
“I don’t have any volunteers for shuckin’,” he said. “Plenty of volunteers for eatin’.”
Willing’s fried oysters-to-come are the culinary pearls in these shells.
“This is somethin’ Uncle Jack (Willing) and I started doin’ the first of the `arster’ season,” Willing explained. “It was something for us to do. I have been cooking oysters for my church for years, so I know my way around a kitchen. We had both fried rockfish and oysters here in one week. We know how to do things up right own here.”
“I’m here to tell ya, that rock he fixed was good, too,” said workman Bobby Bradshaw. “This is one of the fringe benefits of being local, gettin’ this good food.”
“These are as good as you can git,” Jack said with a nod, pointing to a basket of wet shells. “We have them give to us.”
They are given to the Willings by oyster dealer and buyer John Scharch, who operates the Oyster Peddler out of Tilghman’s Island.
“It helps spread the word about how good oysters are and may encourage sales,” Scharch said, “so we all benefit.”
When everything is fresh, it makes for a better fried oyster,” Eldon said.
“I don’t know if Eldon’s gonna put his secret fried oyster recipe out there,” Bradshaw said, “but they are delicious.”
The chef confessed that there is no secret recipe, that it’s all a matter of simplicity and a basic concoction of flour, salt and pepper, and a shake of seasoning. Then, too, he does rely on a personal seasoning favorite.
“It’s Delaware Bay Seasoning, made by R.L. Schreiber Spices,” the chef all but whispered.
Sure, he fusses over the heat of the oil, the just-right coating each oyster gets and the perfect cooking time, but they just somehow come out deliciously special.
On a 10-foot long work table of scrap lengths of plywood, stretched over two 55-gallon plastic trashcans in the cluttered workshop, the cook has a station for each step in the cooking process. Plump, succulent “arsters,” caught hours fresh from the depths of the cold Tangier Sound, float in their own rich liquor in a bowl at one end of the table.
From station to station, Willing walks the oysters down the line, meticulous in every step of the process.
It is a culinary symphony from start to finish, performed with attention to detail. As he slowly dropped several oysters into an steel bowl of flour, a small cloud of white dust puffed over his blue flannel shirt, leaving a white ghost between his suspenders.
“Do you ever see any good cook that didn’t get flour all over them?” he asked.
Willing has a natural chef’s flair, as he dips, swirls, sprinkles and coaxes several oysters to take on a dusting of flour and spices.
Once coated, the white oysters are gingerly placed on paper towels to come to room temperature so as not to cool the hot oil when their turn comes to bubble and shimmer in the amber-colored oil.
From the hot electric pan comes an overture in musical grease, the subtle, rolling, snapping, crackling of hot oil frying moist oysters into delicate, crunchy morsels. The hot oil fragrance of Essence de Oy-Ster filled the room, wafting around the open shop door, revealing to those outside the Eastern Shore delicacy waiting to be sampled.
“You can almost smell them oysters cookin’, comin’ down Route 13,” 12 miles away, Jack Willing said.
The previous oil of choice that he had been using quickly fell out of favor.
“It burnt too easy. So now I’m using canola oil,” said chef Willing.
“I don’t do much cooking at home,” Willing said to dispel any high expectations of his guests.
“But he’s seen it done,” said marine contractor Jimmy Insley.
“I think his momma (my sister Irma) must have showed him how to cook oysters,” said Eldon Willing’s uncle, as he finished off his 12th fried oyster, “because, oh my, she was a great cook.”
On his wooden former workboat, April Star, he has a grill that can be relied upon to turn out hearty hamburgers and tender hot dogs seasoned with an unexpected mist of salt water. Willing does not believe in haute cuisine.
“I’ll cook oysters and fish and that kind of stuff, and maybe breakfast for the family, but I don’t want to be doin’ a whole lot of cookin’ more than I’m doin’ here,” Willing explained, “’cause I’m not all that good.”
His friends think otherwise.
“He called and told me today was `oyster day,’ “said the Rev. Henry Zollenhoffer, “I just had to come down here for somethin’ this good. I really like the ambiance of the workshop,”
Looking toward the shadows in the door, the preacher steps aside.
“Here comes some hungry fellas now with their tongues hangin’ out,” he said.
Friends, watermen and workmen filed in, leaving sand and mud footprints on the concrete floor.
Despite the temptation to load several slices of bread with the fried oysters, the men survey the number of guys gathering for the nosh to make sure there’s a polite and fair sharing.
“Eat all you want,” Willing urged the lunch crowd.
The oyster nuggets were arranged artfully and carefully on a slice of tender white bread by Jimmy Insley, who found that six crispy delectables made for the perfect man-size sandwich. The men eat more and talk less as they fix their sandwiches.
“Finish ‘em off, I got another batch coming up,” Willing tells the line of men. “Here ya go fellas, they’re hot.”
No one minds the piles of engine parts, stacks of this and that, or that Roxie, a yellow Labrador, is on patrol by their feet, scarfing up a dropped fried oyster so fast it doesn’t have time to leave a smear of liquid grease on the floor.
It is Chef Willing’s kitchen ambiance, with all the smells and signs that bring distinction and raves to his private luncheon of single-fried oysters.
“Tell you what, man, these are good,” Insley said as he took another generous bite.
Each sandwich, every single-fried oyster delicacy, merits generous compliments to the chef. They are tastefully accepted with modest, polite — and much restrained — appreciation.
“So far, we haven’t had any leftover fried oysters,” Eldon Willing said.
“Problem with feedin’ these guys,” Jack Willing said, “is that some crawl in their trucks and go to sleep.”
Yet one food critic believes, in a single-fried oyster competition, he would edge Eldon Willing out for bragging rights.
“Yes,” said waterman Daniel Webster. “I ate his Smith Island cake and a dozen of his oysters and complained to him the whole time. His oysters give me indigestion. The ones I fry, don’t.”
Willing dismisses his detractors quickly.
“He says his oysters are better than mine, but he’s the only one that believes that,” Willing said, laughing. “Daniel Webster — he talks a good game, but he can’t deliver.”
So what is it that makes Willing’s workshop fried oysters so special? It seems to be the shared spirit of old-time Eastern Shore generosity and kindness.
Johnny Insley gave the chef a bear hug, thanking him for the fare with the words, “You’re good people. ‘Preciate it man, I’ll be back.”
(Copyright 2013 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)