Holiday Oyster Stew

While reading the Laura Ingalls Little House series of books to my once upon a time young children, I learned that my family’s traditional Christmas Eve light meal of Oyster Stew, cookies and tea wasn’t so unique to just my mother’s family. It was interesting to learn that as a child, even Laura Ingalls had delightful memories of savoring her Christmas oyster soup. For me, I’m not sure whether it was the oyster stew or the fact that after a seven-hour December 24th drive to be with grandparents—and for a few years there were great-grandparents—our entire family would be together at an extra long table to partake of and enjoy the rich flavor of oyster stew. It always felt like a happy, secure time and probably a good part of the reason of why I grew to like oyster stew, but the togetherness over a family meal created an anchor so strong it’s difficult to eat oysters of any kind and not have good memories come flooding back.

In North America, oysters gained popularity as a Christmas tradition when Irish immigrants substituted their Christmas Eve fish stew with oyster stew. During the 1800’s, the cold winter months made it possible to safely transport fresh oysters from the New England Atlantic to inland destinations. The seasonal arrival of fresh oysters in distant places from the ocean indicated the beginning of the holiday season. For the Irish, fasting from red meat the day before a religious feast day was dictated by the Catholic Church and the abundance of oysters from the Atlantic coast replaced the fish traditionally used for their Christmas Eve meal. The availability of the delicacy during the festive season created a tradition for many pioneering families that has carried on for generations. To quote Laura Ingalls from her book, By The Shores of Silver Lake, “She sipped slowly, slowly from her spoon, to keep that taste going over her tongue as long as she could.” One hundred years later, I too as a child savored the once a year tradition and on a cold winter evening, occasionally still prepare.

This is an elegant holiday dish and a warming food that takes only minutes to prepare.

Oyster Stew

  • Makes about 6 servings
  • 1 lb of fresh or 2-8 ounce cans of oysters reserving the liquid
  • Soda crackers
  • 2 tbsp butter
  • 3 cups whole homogenized milk
  • 1-cup table cream
  • ½ tsp celery salt
  • ½ tsp cayenne pepper
  • Salt and pepper to taste

-Drain liquid off the oysters into a saucepan and heat. There should be about 1 cup, add a little water if necessary.
-Crush soda crackers to make half a cup, add to the liquid along with the butter.
-When it begins to boil, add the oysters and simmer 2 to 3 minutes. If you are using fresh oysters simmer just until the ends start to curl.
-Add the milk, cream, celery salt and cayenne pepper.
-Heat to the boiling point and no more.
-Add salt and black pepper to taste.

Happy Holidays!!