In Charleston: Sixty years of oysters
copyright the Chronicle October 8, 2014
by Paul Lefebvre
Sixty years ago a photograph was published of Marilyn Monroe standing over a New York City sidewalk register whose hot air lifted her skirt higher up her legs than anyone expected to see.
Sixty years ago Elvis the Pelvis recorded his first hit, “That’s all Right,” a song sung in such a seductive voice that it went beyond ballistic as soon as people saw him perform it.
And 60 years ago, the volunteer firemen of Charleston held their first fund-raiser, an oyster stew supper that has gone on to become an annual event in a region known for its chicken pie suppers and strawberry shortcake.
How to explain the popularity of oyster stew in landlocked country nearly half a day’s drive from the ocean?
“I’ve known only one other place that has done it — a church in Craftsbury — and they only did it for the one year,” recalls Duane Moulton, the department’s fire chief who lives in East Charleston.
Richard Colburn of West Charleston, the town’s historian, can’t say exactly why, but he remembers the church used to put on an oyster stew supper from time to time, before the department was created.
Yet, while no one knew the whys, most everyone on the 22-member volunteer fire department knows when and where the first oyster stew supper began. It was in 1954 and soon after the townspeople formed a fire brigade to fight a fire that fire trucks from a neighboring town passed by in the mistaken belief that it was in Island Pond.
The mistake left townspeople believing it might be time to start a department of their own, recalls Chief Moulton. A fellow from town went to New Jersey in November and drove home an open cab 1933 Brockway pumper truck — a drive that must have been fueled with endless cups of hot coffee. Once the truck arrived, a question arose as to how the department was going to get the funds it needed to survive. No one wanted just taxpayers to shoulder the added expense.
Jack Sloan, one of the founders of the department as well as an auctioneer and general store owner, came up with the idea of an oyster stew supper. The first one was held in the East Charleston church vestry.
“Jack made the first one, and we’ve been using his recipe ever since,” says Duane Moulton.
Darald Moulton, cousin to Duane, was the stewmaster Saturday, or the one most likely to oversee the oysters. The department uses large oysters, known as selects, and this year they came out of Virginia rather than Maine.
“The longer they simmer, the better they taste,” says Duane, who has taken a turn in years past at stirring the stew.
The department puts on two sittings — one at five, the other at six. Those in the know come early. It’s just about four when Raymond Deslandes and his wife show up in the schoolyard at Middle Charleston, where the elementary school is located. The supper’s popularity has made the department change sites, and Mr. Deslandes from Jay is the first of the diners to arrive.
“Is this where they’re having the oyster supper?” he says, describing himself as someone who loves oysters and wants to be sure he doesn’t wind up at the end of the line. “I want to make sure I get all I can.”
In its heyday, the supper attracted over 300 people, and went through 13 gallons of raw oysters. Tonight they are cooking eight gallons and expect to feed about 250 people.
But it’s not just about oysters. Hot dishes come through the back door and into the kitchen by the armful. Anywhere from 60 to 75 hot dishes have been solicited from the community, and others have made contributions in kind, such as butter and milk.
“It’s an old-time tradition that brings everybody together, and there’s too little of that now,” says Duane in the middle of a busy and crowded kitchen where someone hustling out of the rain comes through the door. Her hands full, she shouts, “Incoming. Make a hole.”
Paul Redden is a member of the department and his wife, Pam, is one of the supper’s volunteers who brings bowls of stew out to the diners and buses tables. She also contributes pastry.
“Every year we’re asked to bring a pie,” she says. “And for 20 years it’s always apple.”
Her husband, however, fills a role that hardly anyone is prepared to associate with a volunteer department. He is the chaplain who does eulogies for the volunteers who die, and some die tragically, such as Kenny Frizzell, who was killed in a tragic accident involving a fire truck roughly five years ago.
A 34-year veteran with the department, Mr. Frizzell’s death set the department back on its heels. There was talk of disbanding, but at a meeting the firefighters decided they would wait a year before making a decision.
“We kept going,” says Mr. Redden.
As the hour nears five o’clock, the school gym resembles a banquet hall. A buffet of hot dishes has been set up on one side of the hall and there’s a separate table for coffee, tea, milk, and other drinks. Except for the expanded space, which can seat 120 diners, it looks every bit like the setting of a church supper — silverware on a napkin, spotless plates.
“How do you spell lemonade?” asks one of the girls in the kitchen who is writing out a drink menu to be taped to the wall.
A young looking fireman whips out his smart phone, goes on line for a spell check and tells her. Someone else wants to know how to spell lasagna.
“I know it’s got a g in it,” someone else says. Hot dishes come out of the oven; others go into it to warm. More milk, more oysters go into the kettle. And in the herky-jerky manner of people who appear to have spent a lifetime of pitching in, a supper comes together.
Whether it’s putting on a supper or fighting a fire, the town’s volunteer department resembles a family affair.
“When I was 14 we had a fire in town,” recalls Darald. “My father said to me — Might as well go along — so I did.”
To look at him today, 40 years must have passed since he went to his first fire. Among the volunteers he is no exception. He estimates that 80 percent of the volunteers in the department today are third or fourth generation firefighters.
But while most family names remain the same, the department has changed. When Duane joined in 1974, the department had an annual budget of $3,000. Today it’s $65,000, as the department has gone from one truck 60 years ago to five.
The price of oysters has increased as well, causing meal tickets at the door to jump from $3 a head to $12. No one Saturday appeared to balk at the price.
“This is my first time eating oyster stew,” says Annette Pion, who along with her husband, Roger Sr., of Morgan, are the first to be seated at the five o’clock sitting. She hopes she likes the stew.
There is a line and a wait between sittings. There are places for 120 diners, and the first sitting has been sold out. As Annette and her husband make their way to the exit, anyone waiting could see by the smile on her face that the firefighters and their families and neighbors had done it up right. The stew was going to be worth the wait.
contact Paul Lefebvre [email protected]
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