Wednesday, June 16, 2010

The Day the Shucking Stopped

I must admit that I feel as though I am letting some of my readers down by not posting my expected design stories and photos. For those who know me and follow me as a designer and antiques purveyor, I ask for your forgiveness and patience. I continue to work restoring beautiful antiques which, especially at a time when going "green" has never been more important, gives me great satisfaction. Today, 1stdibs released some of my newest creations at so I hope you will check them out. I continue to be accessible via email at if you have any questions or need to talk about anything. And if you happen to be in New Orleans, please stop by my shop to say "hello" and have a cup of coffee with me.

In the meantime, the design stories and posts must take a backseat at least for the time being. There is so much happening in this world that it seems selfish of me to write about anything else.

Take for instance what recently happened to P&J Oysters Co, a New Orleans legend.
No institution has played a larger role in the advancement of south Louisiana's oyster industry than New Orleans' P&J Oyster Company, the oldest business of its kind in the United States.

For more than 130 years it has been cultivating and harvesting oysters that are consistently recognized for their uncompromising freshness and quality of flavor.

P&J oysters were present at the creation of many legendary dishes of New Orleans' Creole cuisine. One such is the most famous oyster dish of them all-oysters Rockefeller, invented in the 1880s at Antoine's by the restaurant's proprietor, Jules Alciatore.

But the story of P&J begins many thousands of miles from New Orleans - in Croatia, a region that was once part of Yugoslavia.

For the inhabitants of the Croatian villages strung along the coast of the Adriatic Sea, fishing was a way of life for thousands of years. Many generations of them also traveled throughout the Mediterranean as seafarers to practice their trade.

In the mid-1800s, a large number of Croatian fishermen and their families began migrating to America. Many of them found their way to the Gulf of Mexico and Louisiana. Among these was John Popich, who settled near New Orleans. Like many of his countrymen, Popich quickly became an oyster fisherman, plying the waters of the Gulf of Mexico to cultivate and harvest the fresh shellfish that was always in high demand in the homes, restaurants and oyster saloons of New Orleans and its environs.

In 1876, John Popich founded his oyster company. Popich planted, cultivated, harvested and distributed his fresh oysters in the shell to restaurants and saloons in and around the greater New Orleans area for a number of years.

Around the turn of the century, Popich took on a new and younger partner, Joseph Jurisich. Jurisich's family was also in the oyster business owning an oyster saloon in the New Orleans French Quarter, but his parents died when he was a child, so he never had the opportunity to join his family's business. Jurisich was raised by his mother's family, the Federico's.

This partnership gave Popich the ability to concentrate on the oyster farming operation, while Jurisich focused on distributing the oysters to the local market. After a couple of years, the men decided it was time to expand their business and they established the largest oyster shucking operation in the southern United States, naming the company "Popich & Jurisich" or "P&J Oyster Company."

In 1921, the men believed that it was time to expand their operations. They purchased the present day oyster shucking house in the French Quarter on the corner of Toulouse Street and North Rampart Street in the French Quarter. They also took on a salesman, Alfred Sunseri. Alfred was married to Elvira Federico, Joe's first cousin.

Alfred continued working full-time for the United Fruit Company, (Chiquita Bananas) while working as P&J's part-time salesman and bookkeeper. Alfred developed and expanded P&J's shipping business through his shipping contacts he had with the United Fruit Company all over the U.S.

P&J used Railway Express as their major mode of interstate transportation. Railway Express picked up barrels of oysters in the shell, as well as shucked oysters, three times a day from the French Quarter facility and delivered fresh oysters to destinations in 48 states, Canada, and Mexico. With Alfred's customer contacts from the United Fruit Company, P&J became one of the biggest shippers of gulf oysters in the U.S.

In the early 1930's Alfred was offered a national management position at United Fruit Company if he would move to Baltimore, Maryland. He could not turn it down since this was the best financial choice for his young family. Popich and Jurisich wished him farewell and said that if he became homesick, he always had a position at P&J.

P&J had become overwhemling for the two men to handle by themselves. They lost some of their business because of the increased workload since Alfred's departure. After Alfred had been living in Baltimore for nearly six months or so, Jurisich contacted Alfred and offered him a one-third partnership in the business to return to P&J. Alfred did not hesitate to return his family to their beloved New Orleans.

In 1952, Alfred's only son, Sal began working at P&J as an accountant. After a few years the elder Popich and Jurisich decided to retire and relinquish their stock in the business to their children. Upon Alfred's death in 1961, Sal became the president and general manager of P&J Oyster Company.

Sal's young partners became disinterested in the oyster company and began selling their stock to Sal. By the late 1970's, Sal purchased the final shares of stock in the company and became the sole owner.

In 1980, Sal's son, Alfred Sunseri, came to work at P & J and is currently the general manager of the business. In 1984, Sal's second son, Sal Sunseri, Jr., began working full time for the company and is currently the sales manager. In 1991, Sal's youngest daughter, Merri Sunseri-Schneider, became P&J's office manager and bookkeeper.

Today, writer Mireya Navarro, wrote a sad but relevant article in the New York Times' "Green" - A Blog About Energy and the Environment. It was an announcement that made all New Orleanians realize the impact of the oil spill to both our wetlands and way of life (not to mention tradition). Many of you may not be aware of this and so I wanted to share Ms. Navarro's article with you. She wrote:

Last weekend, Sal Sunseri, co-owner and vice president of P&J Oyster Company, the oldest oyster processor and distributor in New Orleans, presided over the city’s inaugural Oyster Festival. Throughout, he refused to entertain the notion that given the closing of many gulf oyster beds because of the oil spill, the first such festival could be the last.

“I’m optimistic,” he told me. “I believe in God and in miracles.”

But the disaster that has already robbed thousands of fishermen of their livelihood led Mr. Sunseri to announce on Thursday that his 134-year-old business has ceased shucking oysters for the time being. He told The Times-Picayune newspaper that he would not shut down his operation entirely because some oysters were still coming in.

But regular production has been halted, and he is not sure what will become of P&J and its 19 employees in the long run.

“Our fisherman have beds that are either closed, or their beds have been inundated with fresh water from the diversions used to increase flow to keep the oil at bay,” Mr. Sunseri told The New York Times in an e-mail message. As a result, he said, “we are not the P&J Oyster company that our restaurants rely on for the finest farm raised oysters in the Louisiana gulf.”

He said he had yet to determine whether those customers would buy East and West coast oysters from P&J. “Not the type of business that we are accustomed to running,” he said sadly.

Similar businesses are also having a hard time and are relying on suppliers from out of state. New Orleans restaurants are still serving oysters; some report that demand for them is even up because customers sense that the end of an era is coming.

At the oyster festival in the French Quarter last weekend, Mr. Sunseri, one of the organizers, effusively told the audience, “We feel very blessed to be able to do this, and hopefully we’ll be doing it for the next 134 years.”

But there are no miracles yet.

P&J's Oysters Joseph


This recipe continues to be the one most often served when the current generation of the widespread Sunseri family gets together for a feast. Their father, the late Sal Sunseri, Sr. was the powerhouse who moved P&Js Oysters forward, making it what it is today. He created Oysters Joseph, which was always his favorite dish.


1/2 gallon shucked oysters
strained oyster liquor
1 stick unsalted butter or margarine
8 toes garlic, minced
3 green onions, finely chopped
3 cups seasoned Italian breadcrumbs
3 lemons
1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil
1 cup fresh grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese

YIELD: 10 to 12 servings

Preheat the oven to Broil.

Strain the oyster liquor to remove grit. Set aside. In large heavy bottomed skillet, melt butter or margarine over a low heat. Sauté minced garlic in until soft and translucent, about 2 to 3 minutes. Add oysters and liquor. Cook oysters with sauted garlic for about 3-5 minutes until the oysters plump and edges begin to curl.

Using a 9"-13" Pyrex dish or similar sized casserole dish, spread 1 cup of breadcrumbs evenly on the bottom of the dish. Spoon a layer of oysters and sautéed garlic mixture with 1/3 of the uncooked green onions top of the breadcrumbs.

Add the second 1 cup layer of breadcrumbs and sprinkle a 1/3 cup layer of Romano cheese over them. Drizzle olive oil on top of breadcrumbs and cheese then add the zest of one lemon as well as the juice of the lemon. On top of the layer spoon the remaining oysters and sautéed garlic mixture and the remaining uncooked green onions. Add the last layer of breadcrumbs and sprinkle a 2/3 cup layer of Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese.

Cut 1 lemon in 1/8 inch slices and place on top of the cheese and breadcrumbs. Broil on the oven's middle rack until cheese is golden brown and the dish is heated through, 4 to 5 minutes. Watch carefully.

Squeeze the juice of the last lemon on top of the casserole before serving.

The amount of ingredients can be reduced incrementally to produce a smaller quantity.

P&J's Oysters Rockefeller Bisque


Al Sunseri won the Times-Picayune's famous annual recipe contest with this salute to P&J Oysters. Since this magnificent soup is very rich, it may also be served in demitasse cups, doubling the number of servings.


1/2 gallon plus 1 quart shucked fresh oysters
the juices (liquor) from the oysters
1/2 cup (1 stick) melted unsalted butter
5 green onions, chopped
1/4 head iceberg lettuce, chopped
6 cloves minced garlic
5 stalks finely chopped celery
4 (10-ounce) packages thawed frozen spinach,squeezed dry and chopped
1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper
2 tablespoons Chef Paul's Seafood Magic
1/2 gallon whole milk
1 quart half and half
zest of 1 lemon
juice of 2 lemons
1 cup freshly grated
Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese
1/2 cup Herbsaint or Pernod
anisette liqueur
salt to taste

YIELD: 30 servings

Strain the oyster liquor into a bowl to remove grit. Set both the liquor and the oysters themselves aside.

Set aside 1/2 cup of green onions for garnish.

In a large, heavy Dutch oven or cast-iron pot, melt the butter over low heat. When the butter is hot, add the celery, lettuce, garlic, green onion, cayenne and Chef Paul's Seafood Magic and saute until the vegetables are soft, about 10 to 15 minutes, stirring occasionally. Add 24 of the oysters to the sautéed ingredients and cook for an additional 5 minutes.

Transfer the oysters and seasonings to a 2-gallon stockpot. Add the milk, half and half and oyster liquor. Pour the mixture in batches into a blender, filling it halfway and blend throughly. Return each batch to the stockpot.

When all of the mixture has been blended, stir the anisette liqueur, cheese, lemon zest and lemon juice into the stockpot. Add all of the remaining oysters and heat over a low flame, stirring occasionally until the oysters are plump and their edges just begin to curl. Add salt to taste.

For a thinner soup, stir in more milk until the desired consistency is achieved. Garnish with green onions. Ladle into bowls or cups and serve. The amount of ingredients can be reduced incrementally to produce less bisque.

If you can still find oysters where you live, I hope you will try these recipes.

1 comment:

  1. I still can't believe it. I know a few oyster farmers in Plaquemines Parish and I wonder what they are going to do. I know a lot of them go to Croatia for the summer and I hope they come back and that the beds are open again.


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