Considering the prodigious way New Orleanians consume oysters, it seems reasonable that there would be specific plates for serving them. But because we tend to eat them right from their shells, regular plates generally do just fine.
In the 19th century, however, hosts of dinner parties in the U.S. and Europe who lived in regions with access to fresh oysters served the bivalves without their shells on elegant hand-painted dishes.
Go into almost any high-end antique store today and you will notice an array of these decorative jewels. Oyster plates feature molded sections to hold individual oysters. There are many traditional styles of plates: circular or scalloped with five or six molds, often with a middle section for sauce; the turkey design, in which the oyster molds form a poultry pattern; the nongeometric style with an oblong or rectangular shape; and unconventionally shaped plates with designs like fans, baskets and sea creatures in rich colors.
These plates are highly collectible. However, because they are so delicate they are often relegated to cabinets where they collect dust, charming vestiges from a bygone era.
But oyster plates are making a comeback in everyday dining situations. In 2010, Monique Chauvin — owner of Mitch's Flowers (4843 Magazine St., 504-899-4843; www.oysterianola.com) — and her friend Leslie Stidd Massony, launched Oysteria, a contemporary line of oyster plates that are both decorative and utilitarian.
"After Hurricane Katrina, Monique was taking pottery and convinced me to take pottery with her," says Massony, an artist who works in painting, pottery, floral design and interior design. In the pottery class, she started creating oyster plates.
"I have always had a love of oysters and Monique's family started in the oyster business in Chauvin, La., in the late 1800s," Massony says.
The friends decided to update the oyster plate tradition. Their contemporary plate design is both attractive and meant for regular use. The sturdy plates are oven- and dishwasher-safe.
Oysteria's main design features plate bases of varying sizes on which several life-like clay oyster shells are attached and formed to hold oysters. There are also ramekins, nesting bowls, larger platters and appetizer plates. Plates in the line range from $10 to $200.
Sold at Mitch's Flowers and online, the plates are popular in New Orleans and far and wide. "We have customers from everywhere: from Alaska to Greece; the vice president of the United States to the owner of the Miami Dolphins," Massony says.
"Oysteria is handmade and it has become our passion," Massony says. "We would like to share our passion with everyone. Almost all materials are purchased locally and it is truly made in Louisiana."