When oysters were king on Christmas
Listen to this segment from NPR affiliate WBUR below
What’s the main attraction at your holiday feast? Roast turkey? Stuffed pork loin? Lasagna? How about oysters? There was a time when those briny little bivalves were the big stars on Christmas Day. Food historian Susan Benjamin dug up some old recipes to take us back to when and why oysters were so popular.
“There are a million reasons,” she explained. “One of them is they were really bountiful throughout the 1700s into the 1800s when Europeans came to the New England shores, and they were confronted with oysters.”
Northeast Native Americans had been eating the mollusks for 9,000 years. But the oysters colonists encountered along the coastline were not the relatively small ones we see today.
“They were huge! Some of them could have been a foot long,” Benjamin said. “And they were on reefs that were so high, and so spiky, that it actually threatened the arrival of the ships coming in.”
But the oysters also enticed the settlers. Soon enough both the working class and well-to-do were gobbling down the plentiful shellfish. A popular recipe was something known as oyster ice cream. “Culinary apologists explain that it’s just like hot oyster stew,” Benjamin clarified, “only it’s chilled.”
It didn’t take long for the love of oysters to spread. “You would find them at upscale hotels, but also in taverns, where they would just have buckets of oysters that they would eat and throw the shells on the floor,” Benjamin said.
Oysters went on to become a bonafide holiday favorite in the late 19th century. “And the reason for that came with the celebration of Christmas becoming a more elaborate affair,” Benjamin said, “and how could you leave out – even for a moment – something that was so important, and so versatile, as the New England oyster?”
During the Victorian era, suppliers urged consumers to pre-order their holiday oysters, and sweetened the deal by offering free delivery and even shucking at no extra charge. The bivalves also received top billing on restaurant menus.
“And the array of oysters was crazy,” Benjamin said of the different iterations she unearthed. “To find these recipes, I went where I always go, which was to old cookbooks, old menus, and especially to old newspapers.”
Back then, a traditional Christmas dinner likely started with oyster soup, turkey with oyster stuffing and cranberry sauce. “No surprises there,” Benjamin said, then unfurled a litany of other dishes, “Then you get into your deviled oysters – which were the prequel to deviled eggs – and then you have your scalloped oysters, you have oyster soufflé, you have oyster pâté, you have oysters served with pickles and olives and hot chips, and then you have oyster salad. This is made with oysters, plus boiled eggs, plus raw eggs, pepper, salt, mustard, all tossed with vinegar.”
A 1918 Boston Globe recipe for Oyster Toast, submitted by someone named Wee Wifie, began with, “I have read that oysters are very easily digested and make blood quicker than anything else.” Some basic directions followed.
“Make a nice slice of toast, butter well and lay 6 oysters, after slightly scalding them in their own liquor add ½ cup of milk, salt, pepper and a little butter. Pour over toast and serve.”
Benjamin also found a Prohibition-era recipe, dated Dec. 24, 1925, for a cocktail salad made with “catchup,” lemon juice, oysters and liquor (from the shell, not the bar!) that was served in cocktail glasses.
Despite the oyster’s stardom, by the 1950s Benjamin said they made nary an appearance on Christmas menus, for a perfect storm of reasons. “The dwindling down of oysters started in Prohibition when the pubs, taverns, and other popular venues where everybody was eating them, were shut down – and the oyster sales shut down with them,” she explained. Also in the 1920s, the public became increasingly aware of food safety issues. But, most importantly, the oyster population plummeted due to over-harvesting, pollution, and disease, “that basically wiped out the once huge industry,” Benjamin said.
By the 1960s, oysters found renewed status in American food culture as a nostalgic Christmas food. “One food writer referred to them as traditional oysters,” Benjamin said, “so they were so unusual that they were a throwback – until the 1970s.”
A Boston Globe reporter shared some good news in 1981: oysters were back on the menu. The writer also instructed the uninitiated on how to prepare them at home. In addition to oyster stew and scalloped oysters, the paper published a novel recipe for something called, Oyster Loaf Bake.
“Which was essentially flour dipped oysters baked in bread with garlic, pepper, hot sauce, olives and dill pickles on the top,” Benjamin said, then joked, “Really, who could resist that?”
Of course these days, oyster farms can be found up and down the New England coastline. And there are plenty ways to commune with their tender, salty, sometimes buttery flesh. Benjamin urges us to bring a dozen or two home so we can partake in the pleasure of shucking them ourselves. “That wonderful, splendid little crackling sound makes you really want them,” she said, “just pick them up, squirt a little bit of lemon, and right down they go.”
Benjamin lives in Harpers Ferry, West Virginia, but grew up in Brookline, so she knows how large the oyster looms in New England. “It’s part of our DNA,” she said. Then Benjamin slurped down a local oyster, made a satisfied sound, and wished everyone a happy holiday.