Winter’s ups and downs

Published 9:57 pm Tuesday, January 8, 2019

By Biff and Susan Andrews

As with all of life’s situations, winter has its ups and downs.

For example, the cold weather takes away our delicious crabs. On the other hand, oysters are at their peak in the months with an “R” — and there’s nothing better in the winter than oyster stew. (More about this later.)

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With the leaves all gone off the vegetation, you can see deep into the forest, to places usually hidden. On the other hand, there’s not as much to see in terms of flora and fauna.

Winter birding observation is a never-ending feast for those of us with multiple feeders. On the other hand, the migratory species are missing, and with them much of the novelty and excitement.

Occasional snow is a lovely novelty, but a pain in the rear as well — on roads and sidewalks.

On the plus side — no bugs. There’s no down side to that — except for the lack of butterflies.

On the plus side — no bears. On the down side, no bears. We’ve seen three in the Great Dismal Swamp, and they all behaved themselves.

Back to the oyster: a brief lesson on their opening, cleaning and cooking:

  • Wear gloves when opening.
  • Hose them off completely from their river mud.
  • Use an oyster knife if you must, but the best tool for opening them is a “church key.” For readers under 60, a church key is a beer can opener from back in the day before pop tops. If you insert the point of the church key in the hinge, you can pop them open — on about 75 percent of big oysters. Those that won’t pop, I save for roasting.
  • Don’t even think about eating an already-open oyster.

For an oyster stew — place a strainer or a colander above a bowl and open 18 to 24 oysters, collecting the liquor. Scrape the oysters from the shells and reserve for later. Strain the oyster liquor again for dirt and grit, then heat to near boiling in a 5-quart saucepan. Add salt and pepper to taste. Heat a quart of half and half to near boiling and add it to the liquor. When all this is just below boiling, add the oysters and cook for about five minutes, until the edges are well-crinkled. Pull it off the stove and let it cool completely before reheating to eat — a must. Do not add onion, celery, parsley, bacon, hot sauce, potatoes or any other flora or fauna. This is not a chowder — it’s oyster stew.

A final word about size: if you get them from Lynnhaven, they’re small to middlin’. If you get them from Johnson and Sons in Eclipse, they are huge — bigger than your hand even after opening. And storage is simple in winter — just leave them outside. They’re good for a couple of weeks.

Oh, and in last night’s stew — a tiny pearl, smaller than a BB, which nearly broke Susan’s tooth. Plusses and minuses. Ups and downs. Good and bad.

But occasionally life gives you a pearl.

Susan and Bradford “Biff” Andrews are retired teachers and master naturalists who have been outdoor people all their lives, exploring and enjoying the woods, swamps, rivers and beaches throughout the region for many years. Email them at