Oyster stew isn’t all that pretty, but it sure is a beautiful sight to behold on some family Christmas tables. Why Christmas? These days it’s often a nod to family tradition, but for many of our grand- and great-grandparents, both Christmas and fresh oysters came along only once each winter.
Oysters come in one of nature’s most impervious shells, as any aspiring shucker can attest. This helps them do well in the cold, whether due to chilly weather or crushed ice. Back when the duration of a trip inland from the coast to a small Southern whistlestop was measured in days, winter was a wiser, safer time to ship and eat fresh oysters. The peace-of-mind of cold weather is one of the reasons that we’re still admonished to eat fresh oysters on in months that contain R rather than in the height of summer heat. Christmas season is smack dab in the middle of R season.
Barrels, buckets, and burlap sacks of chilled oysters could make it all the way to the Upper and Mountain South. There were countless wonderful flavors in the native food of those places (and still are), but none of them tasted of the sea. And no food tastes of the sea more than a freshly shucked oyster. To taste the world of an oyster must have been an exotic experience, one that earned oyster stew a spot on a holiday wish list for a lifetime.
People of means could slurp down as many oysters as they could purchase, but cooks charged with transforming a few oysters into a dish to feed many eaters turned to a great extender: stew. Now, to be clear, what most Southerners call oyster stew is actually soup, and a thin one at that.
WATCH: How-To Shuck an Oyster
To make quintessential Christmas Oyster Stew, a cook warm a saucepan of whole milk seasoned with a knob of butter and plenty of black pepper. Maybe hot sauce. When wisps of steam rise from the pan, the cook stirs in shucked oysters and their briny liquor.
When the milk bubbles and edges of the oysters ruffle like the hem of a wave sliding up on a beach, the stew is ready to eat. Oyster stew should be so piping hot that we blow on it between bites. Those pauses focus us on the gift and ensure we don’t slurp it for granted.
Even if you are able eat oyster stew daily, you can still eat oyster stew for Christmas only one day each year. Merrior Christmas, y’all.