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Oysters Rockefeller is a celebrated American dish that is a staple on many restaurant menus throughout the country. Its main ingredient is fresh oysters on the half-shell. Depending on the region and the preferences of the chef, the toppings may include spinach, parsley, scallions, cheese, breadcrumbs and are usually accompanied by a buttery sauce. The dish is traditionally baked or broiled.
Similar to many famous recipes and dishes, Oysters Rockefeller has an interesting story behind it that has some contradictions. Most accounts confirm the recipe was created by Jules Alciatore in 1899 for the restaurant, Antoine’s in New Orleans. Alciatore’s father, Antoine, had founded the restaurant in 1840 after unsuccessful attempts to do so in New York. Alciatore supposedly named the dish Oysters Rockefeller after John D. Rockefeller, the richest American alive at the time, based on the richness of the sauce, which had a butter base. Antoine’s remains the oldest family-owned restaurant still in operation in the United States.
Most accounts of the dish’s history state that Jules Alciatore loved to serve escargot — or French snails — at his restaurant, but there was a shortage at the time and no snails were available. He decided the local and plentiful fresh oysters would be a good substitute. The sauce he created for the oyster dish was green and appeared to be made of pureed vegetables. The recipe called for the fresh oysters to be served on the half-shell, topped with the sauce and breadcrumbs, and then baked at a high temperature or broiled.
Oysters Rockefeller became an instant hit with diners and soon most New Orleans restaurants tried to duplicate it. Antoine’s maintains that no chef can ever copy the recipe with precision because its creator, Jules Alciatore, reportedly passed it on to his children upon his death. He is rumored to have told them never to reveal it to anyone but family members, who have kept the secret for more than a century.
The biggest mystery of the ingredients of Oysters Rockefeller centers on the green sauce. Current and past chefs at Antoine’s insist the sauce has no spinach in it, but refuse to divulge what gives the sauce its bright green color. A laboratory analysis of the sauce in the mid 1980s revealed it contained parsley, celery that had been pureed and strained, olive oil, capers and either chives or scallions, which cannot be told apart through laboratory testing. Another theory about the green tint of the sauce purports it may have been obtained through the addition of Pernod, a liquor similar to absinthe.