Much beloved in the Mobile area, the oyster loaf exists in a pantheon of “folk foods” that, while locally endemic, have a somewhat murky history. New Orleans and, interestingly, San Francisco both have credible claims on the oyster loaf, the po’boy precursor that was so beloved it earned a nickname: the peacemaker. The idea was that a hollowed-out loaf of bread, stuffed with fried oysters, made the perfect bundle for an inebriated gent to carry home to his fed-up wife. In fact, an 1893 newspaper clipping declares, “When the New Orleans man returns from making a night of it ‘with the boys’ he provides himself with what is called a peacemaker and carries it home under his arm. The peacemaker is also known as an oyster loaf.”
Food history at large is particularly difficult to pin down for a couple of reasons; there is a general lack of primary sources, and cultural ownership of something you eat is very subjective. The most thorough research will fall on deaf ears as long as Grandma made an oyster sandwich. Quite frankly, I would have to side with Grandma. For these reasons, my goal here is to tell the story of the oyster loaf in terms of the “why” and not the “how.”
As to the “why,” the question becomes: “Why did people, however many centuries ago, decide to hollow out a loaf of bread and stuff it with fried oysters?” The short answer is that it tastes great, but the long answer gets to something more fundamental: People needed to be fed.
To the best of my knowledge, the earliest published recipe for an oyster loaf comes from the 1878 “Gulf City Cook Book,” in which the ladies of the St. Francis Street Methodist Church (currently known as the Steeple) compiled dozens of everyday recipes from their parishioners. In the introduction to the 1990 reprint of the GCCB, George H. Daniels, Professor of History at South Alabama, writes “eating is such basic human activity that works dealing with it do reveal a great deal about the society that produces them.” That is to say, this cookbook should be considered a window into the daily diet of these Mobilians at the time, and, as an extension, the oyster loaf can be seen as an everyday dish eaten fairly widely.
Later in his introduction, Daniels goes on to say, “Oysters were plentiful at twenty-five cents a hundred or they could be had for the taking from the apparently inexhaustible beds in the shallow waters at the south end of the bay.” This might come as a surprise to anybody who has checked the current market rate for oysters, but once upon a time, they were one of the cheapest food sources available, to the point of being practically free to harvest. This places the oyster loaf in a particular class of food so humble that it could be enjoyed by just about anyone.
More importantly, given the incredibly accessible nature of oysters at the time, it isn’t a stretch to see how anyone with a loaf of bread would have been able to put the whole thing together with no trouble at all. This brings us back to the beginning, back to the “why” of the oyster loaf. Anyone who cooks does so in order to feed, and based on the
evidence, we can reasonably assume that a loaf of bread stuffed with fried oysters would have organically come together in any environment where these ingredients overlapped. Whether it’s New Orleans, San Fransisco or Mobile that wants to claim it is frankly irrelevant as long as it is sustaining; a peace offering for your palate.
Below you can find the recipe for an oyster loaf, as well as the fried oysters it is stuffed with, as it appeared in the original text of the “Gulf City Cook Book.”
Select large oysters, drain and spread on a cloth to absorb all moisture. Beat well two or three eggs, and season them with pepper and salt. Roll some crackers, and dip the oysters in the egg and then in the crumbs, then again in the egg and cracker crumbs. Drop into boiling lard, sufficient to cover them, and cook till of a light brown.
Cut off carefully the end of a loaf of baker’s bread, reserving the end; scoop out the crumb inside the loaf, leaving the crust entire. Fill the loaf with hot oysters, fried as above, leaving room for slices of pickle. Carefully replace the end cut off. If the oysters are hot, and the loaf well covered, they can be carried quite a distance, or eaten some time after being prepared, without getting cold. This is nice for a hasty lunch or a late supper. One dozen oysters will fill an ordinary sized loaf.