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Old 1871 oyster is new to Chicago plates and palettes

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Updated: October 9, 2013 10:40AM

Oysters didn’t used to be just fancy appetizers for rich diners. In the 19th century, oysters were the stuff of taverns, street carts and bar snacks, often given away free to workingmen who bought a beer. While they may have become slightly more exclusive in our century, at least one seafood company is hoping to revive the spirit of those days gone by by creating the Old 1871 Oyster.

How do you go about “creating” an oyster? It isn’t done in a lab, it’s done in the ocean, and many factors — season, location, age, water salinity, temperature and bacteria — go into making an oyster taste a particular way. Fortune Fish Company reps tasted oysters from all over the East Coast before settling on a few particular oyster farms, and then created particular requirements for the Old 1871 Oyster. Fortune Fish, headquartered in northwest suburban Bensenville, buys and sells 14 million pounds of seafood a year, but these oysters are totally unique.

First, the oyster is from Virginia. Why? “Chicago used to trade pork for oysters with Virginia,” says Fortune Fish Vice President Mark Palicki, and they wanted to have an oyster that was as close as possible to the real deal from the 19th century. The oyster isn’t particularly funky in flavor, and has a nice fresh, salty taste that will appeal to both the average eater and the more adventurous oyster connoisseur. “You are what you eat, even if you’re an oyster,” laughs Palicki, and these oysters feed mostly on eel grass and plankton for a clean flavor.

More importantly, these oysters are big. “Chicago wants big steaks, big oysters, big everything,” says Stacy Schultz Fortune’s seafood sustainability coordinator. Any oyster-eater who has ever gotten some puny little specimen that barely rates a gulp will appreciate this feature. Most oysters are harvested at 2 inches long. Old 1871’s are left in the water until they are 3 inches long, making them more like the larger oysters that were typical in days gone by.

They also have especially deep “cups,” which isn’t a product of genetics but of human intervention. “The oyster farmers take bags of oysters and dump them into a chipping machine,” explains Palicki. “They spin around and little pieces of the oyster shell chip off. Then, instead of trying to grow wider, the oyster grows down and deep.” This particular oyster is a serious mouthful, and every eater will feel like they are getting something worth tasting.

“What’s important to me is the history of oysters in Chicago,” explains Palicki. “Oysters were for everyone. People in saloons and guys drinking beer and firemen and everyone else.” Back in the day, the oysters would be brought to Chicago on trains or even on horse-drawn carriages, packed in hay. That’s where the old adage “Don’t eat oysters in months without an R” comes from, an adage that is entirely irrelevant today. “We get asked that in every single training,” Schulz says. Due to the advent of plane travel and refrigeration, there’s no need to worry about eating oysters in June, but back in the nineteenth century, you could get into serious trouble by eating an unrefrigerated oyster.

Sean O’Scannlain, president of Fortune Fish, has a long history in Chicago, and his family once owned a brewery named after the Chicago fire called Old 1871. A framed picture of that original label is in O’Scannlain’s office, and Palicki thought, “That would make a really cool idea for a new oyster.” That’s exactly what they did, adapting the logo design from beer to oysters. Modern diners can feel good about eating them, too, as an oyster is one of the most sustainable seafood items in the world. “Oysters are the filter for the ocean,” says Schultz, and oyster farming actually improves the quality of the water the oysters are raised in.

Old 1871 oysters already are popping up on menus all over town, and Fortune is selling 8,000 to 10,000 of the bivalves a week. You can find them on menus at places such as GT Fish and Oyster, The Publican, Fishbar, Parson’s Chicken and Fish and Michael Jordan’s Steakhouse. They also can be purchased at some Mariano’s locations.

“We want this to be the oyster of Chicago,” says Palicki.

Anthony Todd is a local freelance writer.

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