America’s history with the oyster has been chronicled in a number of books, articles and websites, with a pair of standouts being Mark Kurlansky’s “The Big Oyster” and Robb Walsh’s “Sex, Death & Oysters.” It seems the Native Americans on the eastern seaboard had been eating oysters for several millennia before the Pilgrims and other settlers arrived, and they introduced their new neighbors to this seafood treat. The newcomers quickly became addicted to the bivalve’s briny charms, and the love affair continues to this day.
Within that culinary history is a smaller chapter on serving up oyster stew for Christmas Eve. The likely origin of this is steeped in Catholicism and the practice of not eating meat on the eve of the observance of Christ’s birth. But the ties are stronger than that, Stephanie Butler writes on history.com. In an article on this savory American tradition, she traces a lineage that goes back to Ireland and a simple stew made with ling. Lings aren’t available here, but oysters are. They share a similar taste and texture, so the substitution was made. And soon, the Christmas Eve menu was set for many families.
I’m introducing the tradition to my family this Christmas Eve. For years, while I was growing up, our whole family would be invited to an oyster stew party that a co-worker of my dad’s threw every year. I’ll be honest: I didn’t really care for the thin, milky soup when I was 7 or 8 years old or the odd taste of the seafood, but we were not allowed to say that to our hosts. We ate every last mouthful of oyster stew and thanked our hosts.
I began to appreciate the flavors more as I got older. And I’m more grateful to that couple, the Meyerhausers, with each passing year. I’m also grateful to my parents for forcing me out of my comfort zone when it came to trying such culinary treasures, but that’s another story.
There are so many different variations of oyster stew that recipes could likely fill a chapter of a book. Emeril Legasse, for example, includes Andouille sausage mashed potatoes in his version. The folks in South Carolina’s Lowcountry add peanuts. I prefer the much simpler style I grew up with, which features oysters gently cooked in warm milk or cream until they curl. You can use as many oysters as you’d like for taste, and vary the seasoning, even the garnishes, to your liking. Robb Walsh’s single-serving stew calls for one pint of fresh oysters. The traditional recipe from whatscookingamerica.net, uses double that amount, but for six servings, which provides a math equation I’d rather not do, except to say that the amount of oysters is sadly less. In our collection of recipes, we also include one that serves 50, in case you’ve got plenty of family and friends coming by. (A tip to the wise: If you’re making oyster stew for 50, make it a party game and have your guests help with the shucking – if they’re sober, that is.)
The basic oyster stew recipe is simple, which is what makes it attractive when you have presents left to wrap and possibly plans for services later that evening or in the morning. If you’ve never made it before, make sure you watch the process closely your first time through. You don’t want to burn the milk and you don’t want to overcook the oysters. What you do want are oysters swimming in cream with a helping of crackers – and tradition – seasoning each serving.