Exhibit Shows the Passion of a Collector and Portrays an Industry Now Under Assault
By Chris Smith
The Southern Food and Beverage Museum has created an exhibit that explains the important role that oysters play in the life of Gulf Coast residents.
The exhibit includes old oyster cans from processors, an oyster bucket, ceramic oyster jug, antique oyster knife, oyster forks, oyster plates, and historic photography. Several photos of several oyster plates can be viewed at http://southernfood.org/sofab/explore/exhibits/extended-oyster-exhibit/
Exhibition artifacts have been loaned to the museum from the collection of Jim Gossen, owner of Louisiana Foods Global Seafood Source, headquartered in Houston. Though he collected many types of oyster artifacts through the years, his major focus of collecting has been oyster plates.
“I started collecting around 1977 or 1978,” says Gossen. “Even though I was in the seafood business, I had no real interest in collecting any items. I remember that I was in Chicago at the National Restaurant Association meeting and I was staying at the Drake Hotel. Every time I went to get my car, I had to pass a little shop that had some oyster plates in the window that always caught my eye. They were cobalt blue. I went into the store and talked to the lady and they were more than I wanted to pay, just way too much. But something made me go back and I bought them and that was the beginning.”
Even though he had been involved in the oyster industry for years, and felt he was familiar with oyster lore, he became acquainted with an entirely new realm of bivalve history.
Though oysters have been consumed for thousands of years, it was during the Victorian era that ostentatious presentations involved in serving oysters reached its zenith. The Victorians honored oysters by serving them with special utensils and by using highly decorated plates designed exclusively for serving oysters.
From the mid-nineteenth century to the early twentieth, hundreds of different oyster plate designs were created in Europe, Asia and the United States. The plates have wells or depressions – usually three to six – as to hold the shucked oyster meat as well as other depressions for sauce, lemons or crackers. The design of the plate interior was limited only by the imagination of the manufacturers and artists who designed and decorated them. The plates range from delicate to massive and were manufactured materials such as porcelain, earthenware, glass, silver and pewter.
“A lot of people don’t know what oyster plates are,” says Gossen. “They do not come as part of china sets. And they are not the most practical thing; they are somewhat aristocratic. You tend to see them more in areas where there are oyster bed and oyster farming.”
After his original purchase in Chicago, Gossen says that he didn’t buy another oyster plate for several years and in fact, he had no intention of starting a collection. Gradually, he began to meet other collectors, including those from the eastern seaboard states where oyster plates were considered works of art. He bought the few books available that described oyster plates, their history, and their values. He also began to search out antique stores in search of plates.
Gossen’s wife, Diane, developed the oyster plate collecting bug. Eventually, the couple amassed a collection of more than 300 plates, including some of value.
“Our collecting philosophy has changed from when we first began,” he says. “Now we know a lot about oyster plates and we know the values and whether something is fairly priced.”
Because they now have a significant well-rounded collection, they are interested in purchasing only the hard-to-find pieces that come into play infrequently. They know there are a lot of counterfeit plates as well as legitimate copies, and what the Gossens have created is a collection of plates that are mostly 100 years of age and older. “When we started, there were no counterfeits out there; the plates had the appropriate markings so there was no way to mislead people. Also, there was no eBay. Like anything else, it’s buyer-beware unless you know the seller.”
Most of the Gossen’s oyster plates are stored away. However, when they built a new house in Houston, Gossen’s brother, an architect, designed a dining room that has a cabinet in each corner. Each cabinet is specially lighted to exhibit roughly 30 plates in each cabinet.
Photos of many of the Gossen’s oyster plates appear on the Louisiana Food website: http://louisianafoods.com/oysterplates/
“I’ve had fun with it over the years,” he says. He seems to surprise himself when he remembers that he’s been collecting for more than 30 years. “I never dreamed that some of them would be displayed in a museum.”
The oyster display will remain on exhibit through the end of the year.