Oysters were the 'peanuts of the 19th century'

November 6, 2013

By Nina Barrett

Today when we think of an oyster bar, we think of a place like GT Fish & Oyster on North Wells Street.

It’s the kind of place where over the course of a year, connoisseurs can sample 90 different varieties of oysters on the half-shell, and the only guy you can pour out your troubles to is a shucker.

On a recent afternoon, though, guests were being asked to imagine an era in Chicago history when an oyster bar was more like — well, your average guy’s bar.

“Back in 1871 when the fire happened, there were hundreds and hundreds of saloons, and lots of what we might call microbreweries today. And at those breweries, they would serve oysters,” said Sean O’Scannlain, president and CEO of Fortune Fish Company, which supplies fresh seafood to many of Chicago’s finer retailers and dining establishments. “It was a good appetizer and certainly one that would encourage people to drink a little bit more.”

O’Scannlain said oysters were the peanuts of the 19th century — a salty bar snack saloons sold cheaply or even gave away to get their customers to drink more beer.

And this particular bit of history is personal to O’Scannlain, whose family has survived for five generations by adapting to Chicago’s ever-changing food-and-drink scene.

“My great-great-grandfather, a man named Peter Fortune, came to the United States from Ireland,” O’Scannlain  said.

Having learned a thing or two working at Guinness in Dublin, Fortune and his brother John started a business in Chicago called the Fortune Brothers Brewery. And besides beer expertise, the Fortune Brothers apparently came equipped with a bit of that famous “luck o’ the Irish.” While the Great Fire of 1871 wiped out the area once known as “Brewtown,” it literally skipped right over Fortune Brothers. The company even managed to stay afloat during Prohibition.   

“At that time my relatives made pasta,” O’Scannlain said. “Spaghetti, macaroni, all these Irish guys making Italian pasta. I can’t vouch for the quality, but that’s how they managed to get through Prohibition. Now I don’t know what they were doing without the authorities looking, but at least to the general public we were a pasta company back then.”

In other words, pasta was their story, and they stuck to it. Because the third gift the Fortune Brothers brought with them to America was the famous Irish gift for storytelling. That was on display at GT Fish & Oyster, where Fortune Fish was serving up heaping platters of its newly launched Old 1871 Oyster, along with an extremely charming story about how the Old 1871 came to be.       

The day before the Great Chicago Fire, said Fortune’s marketing director Mark Palicki, there was another huge fire down on Randolph Street, and most of the city’s firefighters had spent the day battling that.  

“And what do they do after the fire? They go drink a couple beers and have a bunch of oysters, and then they sleep it off and wake up and what do they go into? The Chicago Fire of 1871.

Palicki said the company spent two years working with oyster farmers in Virginia to develop the kind of plumper, meatier-style oyster that would have been served up back in the time of the Great Fire. You might even call it: manly.    

“What’s going on right now in the oyster world is they’re growing smaller, petite, they’re cocktail oysters,” he said. “And since this is a 3-inch oyster, it’s a little bigger than what the normal oyster is right now.”    

Chef James Ross, who was sampling them, thinks the Old 1871 really is an oyster with some regular-guy potential.       

“So many people are, it’s TOO seafoody for them,” Ross said. “It’s too soft for them. It’s almost snotty -- I hate to use that word.

“Did you just say what I think you said?” I asked.

“I said snotty,” Ross replied. “Some people are freaked out by that. But these oysters just have such a nice texture to them. It’s a good training-wheel oyster. But it’s also an oyster that a connoisseur would eat and say, yes, I think that covers every single base.”

The bit about the firefighters was a big hit, too.             

“And also the story behind 1871,” said GT Fish & Oyster Executive Chef Giuseppe Tentori. “These oysters represent Chicago, bottom line. So these oysters here ... GT will have ALWAYS on the menu.”

That history, by the way, is a little bit fishy. The oyster taverns and the fire before the Great Chicago Fire really did exist, but when pressed about the bit where the firefighters go out to fight the Great Fire all stoked up on Old 1871-style oysters, Mark Palicki started to get a little … slippery.          

“I am guessing that some firemen on that day probably did do that, with what was going on in Chicago at that time,” Palicki said.       

“But you’re just — guessing,” I said.

“Correct,” Palicki said. “But I’m bettin’ you it happened. If I could go in a time machine back to that day, I bet there are some firemen sitting in a saloon drinkin’ beer and eatin’ oysters.”

“That’s your story and you’re sticking to it,” I said.

“That’s my story and I’m sticking to it,” Palicki replied.

Well, that’s okay. Because everybody knows that the best way to slurp an oyster on the half shell is just to tip your head back, and swallow it whole.           

Correction: This article has been updated with the correct spelling of the Fortune Fish Company president and CEO's last name.

Nina Barrett is a James Beard Award-winning food contributor. Follow her on her blog.