While it may not be thick and hearty like a beef stew, oyster stew on Christmas is a tradition for many Americans as strong as turkey at Thanksgiving and ham at Easter, especially those with Irish roots.
Simple, Yet Delicious
Classic oyster stew is simplicity itself–oysters, cream, salt, pepper, and perhaps a touch of butter for richness and onion to boost the briny flavor of the mollusks.
There are many different reasons oyster stew became so popular even into the Midwest. It started on the East coast though with the first English settlers arriving at Plymouth Rock, oysters were a reliable and tasty source of nutrition. Native Americans had already been harvesting them for at least 3,000 years. As the young colony’s population grew and spread to cover much of the East Coast, folks along the shores devoured oysters. In stuffings, chowders, pan roasts, and on the half shell, both rich and poor enjoyed as many oysters as they could eat because they were so readily available and inexpensive. America’s oldest still operating restaurant, the Union Oyster House of Boston, opened in 1826 to feature the delicious mollusks. Everyone from Daniel Webster to J.F.K. has frequented the landmark restaurant. However, the Union Oyster House was just the tip of the iceberg of the oyster craze.
The Tweak That Became a Tradition
When the mass immigration of Irish to the East Coast happened during the infamous Potato Famine in the 1840’s and 50’s, these Catholic settlers brought their traditions with them but had to tweak them a bit to meet the ingredients available in their new homes. While they had always eaten a soup made of dried ling fish in their home country, it was not attainable here in the states. They made do with that was readily available and inexpensive, oysters. The recipe was basically the same, milk, butter, and pepper but the protein was a little different but tasted very similar, salty, briny, and can be quite chewy.
The tradition spread West, despite a lack of refrigeration. Wagon loads and train cars full of oysters in the shell, packed in wet straw, sawdust, and seaweed were transported west during the cold months. Many Midwesterners saw the arrival of oysters to herald the beginning of winter and the Christmas holiday. While they were not as cheap to these Midwesterners as they were to those on the East Coast, they became a sought after delicacy.
Not only are oysters delicious, they are extremely nutritious. Oysters are an excellent source of zinc, iron, calcium, and selenium, as well as vitamin A and vitamin B12. Each serving of six oysters contains 43 calories, 4.8 grams of protein, 1.4 grams of fat and 2.3 grams of carbohydrates.
Especially in this part of the country, so far from an ocean, oyster selection is very important. Fresh oysters must be alive just before consumption or cooking. There is only one criterion: the oyster must be capable of tightly closing its shell. Open oysters should be tapped on the shell; a live oyster will close up and is safe to eat. Oysters which are open and unresponsive are dead and must be discarded. Some dead oysters, or oyster shells which are full of sand may be closed. These make a distinctive noise when tapped, and are known as ‘clackers’. If you plan to cook the oysters, there are other options.
Oysters can be purchased already shucked in containers. You can purchase these oysters online or occasionally at your local fish/meat market and local grocery store. Shucked oysters are designated according to size. Standards are the smallest classification of shucked oysters, selects are the middle size grade and counts are the largest. Oysters are packed in their own liquor which is necessary for most recipes requiring oysters. Shucked oysters will have a 10 -14 day refrigerated shelf life.
If you want to add oyster stew to your family’s holiday celebration this year, you will find that the recipe is quick and simple.