Now what or who was the origin of the adage that oysters should only be eaten in months with an ‘R’?
Its first known formulation has nearly always been attributed to one, William Butler (1535-1618), physician to King James I and Fellow of Clare Hall, at the University of Cambridge, who apparently uttered this pearl of wisdom in 1599, although some authors talk even of a Samuel Butler, but the only reference occasionally given is to a 16th century cookbook.
However, the truth of the matter is far more intriguing than could ever be imagined.
Surprisingly, its articulation took place against a backcloth of the bitter struggle of the Reformation, a symbolically ladened depiction of which are probably the paintings, seen above, by Osias Beert, a Flemish cork-maker whose stilleven and ontbijtjes were in many ways benchmarks for Dutch and Flemish painters of his time. Across the channel in Elizabethan England, conflicts raged between the old-order monasteries and the new seats of learning, the universities. At one of the latter, Corpus Christi College in Cambridge, was an enterprising young student, one of whose distant relations, Sir William Buttes (who gets a small cameo part in Shakespeare’s Henry VIII) had been a physician to Henry VIII and whose notoriously Puritan family hailed from Norfolk. His name was Henry Buttes. Unfortunately, it seems as if his family was on the verge of ruin, as its property had fallen into the hands of some distant relation and another influential family, the Bacons. The head of the latter family towards the end of the 16th century was the widow of Sir Nicholas Bacon, Elisabeth I’s Lord Keeper of the Great Seal – a stern, highly intellectual woman, Lady Anne Bacon, an avid Puritan and influential member of Queen Elisabeth’s court, as one of her lady-in-waitings. However, her eldest son, Nicholas (who was also knighted), by virtue of his marriage to one of Henry Buttes’ relations (also named Anne), inherited sometimes during the 1590’s the entire family fortune and estate of his father- and two uncles-in-law, perhaps leaving the poor Henry somewhat aggrieved. In his youth, he tried a way of bringing himself to the attention of the younger Lady Anne Bacon, by writing and publishing, of all things, a cookbook in 1599, entitled Dyets Dry Dinner. So it would appear that it was rather this bizarre book, by the just as bizarre Mr. Buttes that not just offered a fascinating insight into Elizabethan eating habits but was also the source of this legendary tenet. However, Butler’s name never gets a mention; neither under the headings Oyster and Ostreum nor anywhere else for that matter is there is any word at all regarding a William Butler, or any other Butler, so how he got into the story is a complete mystery.
The book, quite a monumental piece of writing and crammed with all sorts of wonderful details and observations, seems to have been composed early in Buttes’ life, possibly with a similar amount of dry, tongue-in-cheek humour, and was dedicated to the younger Lady Anne Bacon, whose father is named in the preface as Edward Buttes Esquire, who in turn was one of the three sons of Sir William Buttes, mentioned earlier (meaning that she was his third cousin. The author was obviously keen on ingratiating himself with her and invited her to a feast that he himself would organise and cook (“To whose frugall Table, I invite your Ladyship”)! Up until sometime during the reign of Henry VIII, it had been a custom for the College to invite certain of the townsmen for dinner in hall, but the king had stopped this famous Corpus Christi Day procession, much to the annoyance of the local population, who no doubt viewed it as a free opportunity to make merry. He wanted to invite her to a sober affair and impress her with his temperance and no doubt Puritan views. So he presented the virtues of food which did not need the accompaniment of wine and other alcoholic beverages, lauding on the contrary the benefits of “Tabacco”, thus the title; in a surprisingly informative way, each double-spread describes a food belonging to one of “eight severall courses” of the meal – “Fruites, Hearbes, Flesh, Fish, Whitmeats, Spice, Sauce, Tabacco – with their specific origins, tastes, uses, effects, serving suggestions, on the left side and on the right hand page, under the heading “Story for Table-Talke”, tit-bits of information are mentioned about his selected food. And it is here under the Latin heading of Ostreum and Story for Table-Talke that he wrote “[The oyster] is unseasonable and unwholesome in all monethes, that have not the letter R in their name, because it is then venerious.” i.e. spawning. It is worth noting what else he had to say about the oyster, on the left-hand page under the title of Oyster: “it hath a kinde of salt iuyce in it, that affecteth the palate more then other shell fishes: exciteth appetite, and Venus: nourisheth litle”. He recommended dressing it “with pepper, oyle, the iuyce of sowre Orenges [lemons?]: after it be roasted on the imbers”. He repeated the Aristotelian notion of the oyster’s spontaneous generation by stating “it is engendred of meere myre, or of mudde inclining to corruption:or of the sea-froth and spume…” as well as the ancient belief of the moon’s influence on its growth, “increasing and decreasing with the Moone”.
Philpots, in his huge opus on oysters (1890, 243), mentioned that in medieval times a Latin dictum, set in Leonine verse, – mensibus erratis vos ostrea manducatis – was in use, which conveyed roughly the same meaning, so the origin of this wise sentiment was probably much older.
Furthermore, Henry Buttes would have been a contemporary and younger colleague of the aforesaid William Butler, as he titles himself as “Maister of Artes and Fellowe of C.C.C. in C”, a playful acronym for the College of Corpus Christi in Cambridge, one of whose greatest benefactors during the 16th century was Sir Nicholas Bacon, husband of the above-mentioned elder Lady Anne Bacon. So whether Butler and Buttes were in connivance or what the origin was of Henry Buttes’ considerable culinary erudition is beyond the pale of this blog and probably any other too. A chapter about Henry Butts (sic) from a history of the C.C.C. noted that ”in his youth he was reckoned a man of Humour and Pleasantry….although not very delicate therein” and that his “small” book was “in truth a whimsical performance”, thus acknowledging its intention to entertain.
Henry Buttes 1575?-1632
However, the fate of Master Buttes is known, for being a “Norfolkman”, he was able quite easily to become a “Fellowe” of the College in 1597 (as a number of fellowships were restricted to such requirements), and his “courteous countrymen” are mentioned in the book’s Dedicatorie. After having become ordained a preacher at the university and later a Doctor of Divinity in 1623, he was not only elected as Master of Corpus Christi in 1626, but succeeded in also being appointed the University’s Vice-Chancellor in 1629. However, after having endured a particular fierce plague in 1630, helping the sick and afflicted in the town, “alone, a destitute and forsaken man, not a Scholler with me in the College”, this experience seemed to have had such a detrimental affect on his state of mind that, two years later he was found to have hung himself in his garters in the Master’s Lodge, when he failed to show up to preach the University Sermon at the Church of St Mary the Great on Easter Day. There followed further conjecture on the cause of his “rash and nefarious action”, that it may have been due to a “deficiency in his Circumstances” (implying some financial problem) or “unsufferable torments with the Devils” (suggesting maybe religious disputes). His terrifying apparition is said still to haunt the College premises, the last report of such a “sighting” having occurred in 1967! Thus the origin of this famous adage has a far more bewitching background and makes for a good story!
The rule does, however, have a sound fundament, despite all this, which is one reason why it has survived for over 400 years! Firstly, the warmer seasons spur the oyster to spawn and breed and up to 75% of its flesh can be sacrificed to ensure as profilic a spawning as possible. As the native oyster is larviparous, it fertilises its eggs inside the shell and incubates them for about 10 days before releasing them into the water column as minute larvae. This happens several times during the same spawning season. During this process its flesh often becomes quite milky (although this texture has its aficionados as well!). In line with this reasoning is a practicality of oyster farming, since a spawning oyster is an asset in itself and its sale prevents the possibilities of millions of fertilised eggs from growing and disturbing the oyster beds (at least in bygone times) could seriously impede settlement and growth of future generations of oysters. Secondly, warm seasons were notoriously reputed for their ill-effects on all sorts of fresh molluscs (before the days of refrigeration), so that the chances of being served a bad one were dramatically increased. Nowadays the problems are often at source in the coastal sea in which the bacterial content can also multiply and which in turn can have a detrimental effect on the oyster population. Thirdly, since prices and consumption are higher in the winter months, farmers want to preserve their stock and boost their supplies to the markets then. There are good reasons why, for example, the French have traditionally eaten a huge proportion of their oysters around December, at the height of winter and at Christmas. Not only are oysters considered a winter delicacy, but also they are at their prime in the months following a summer of hectic spawning and breeding and their taste attains the meridian of their perfection. However, in these days of modern oyster cultivation, sterile triploid oysters, aka in France as “quatre saisons”, can be eaten raw every week of the year. But generally, were the oyster to choose for itself, it would no doubt decide that ‘thou shalt not touch me at all and especially not in those months without an ‘r’ when there are more important things to think about and do’!
Philpots, J. (1890): Oysters and All About Them. London:John Richardson.
Masters, R. (1753): The History of the College of Corpus Christi and the B. Virgin Mary. Cambridge: J Bentham.