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Thursday, December 25, 2008

Locally Grown: Oyster stew - A Christmas Eve tradition

For as long as I can remember, my family has had oyster stew on Christmas Eve. That's a tradition that makes sense if you live near the Chesapeake Bay, where oysters are a treasured natural resource.

Not so much in land-locked South Dakota. (Sorry for you - Oysterman).

As a shy kid, I didn't poll the neighbors to see whether they were slurping down bivalves while they waited for Santa. But I never once heard anyone else mention oyster stew.

Since most of the area was Scandinavian, I looked to my German roots.

When I asked my dad about it, he was no help at all.

"As far back as I can remember, we ate oyster stew on Christmas Eve," he said.

Tell me something I don't know. "Was it a German tradition?"

I could feel him pondering over the phone. "I don't think so. I don't think it came from the Old Country. I think it might have something to do with Wisconsin. It came from the branch of the family that stopped in Wisconsin first."

Hoping for more details than that, I contacted the Embassy of the Federal Republic of Germany in Washington to see if they could shed any light on this tradition. Anja Badura, who handles press, information and public affairs, sent along some interesting links and articles for reference.

Roger M. Grace, who wrote "Reminiscing" for the Metropolitan News-Enterprise, pondered the origins of oyster stew on Christmas Eve in a June 17, 2004, column. Mr. Grace referenced a Milwaukee Journal Sentinel article from 2002, in which Jerry Apps, an author of Wisconsin history and University of Wisconsin-Madison professor emeritus, was quoted: "By 1900, 50 different ethnic groups were here and each brought along its own costumes, recipes, approaches to the celebration. German celebrations always included, on Christmas Eve, oyster stew."

I found the original article in George Mason University's History News Network. Unfortunately, the piece by Jackie Loohauis was on Christmas history, so it did not expound on the topic of oyster stew. And the library doesn't carry any books by Jerry Apps, so I have a confirmation, but not an explation. In the "Reminiscing" column, though, Mr. Grace did go on to say "that tradition did not emanate from Germany, the waters there being too cold for oysters to dwell in them."

Anja also sent along a thread from the Germanna Colonies online archives, in which descendants of German immigrants discuss the tradition of oyster stew on Christmas Eve. After following the conversation, most participants concluded it was not a German tradition, but a ritual picked up along the coast regions of America.

I turned to "The Big Oyster" by Mark Kurlansky to see if I could find any German oyster connection. The only reference in the index - I confess, I haven't read the whole book yet. I've been making Christmas cookies! - was this, from around 1883: "Oysters were being shipped from New York not only to Liverpool, Bristol, Cardiff and Glasgow, but also to Le Havre, Bremen and Hamburg." Apparently someone in Germany was eating oysters.

In Mr. Kurlansky's book, the earlier recipes were for stewed oysters, where you'd "set them over the fire in their own liquor with a glass of wine, a lump of butter, some salt, pepper and mace."

He later quotes from "Miss Leslie's Directions for Cookery," 1851 edition, by Eliza Leslie, which has instructions for both oyster soup and oyster stew. The oyster stew starts by stewing in the liquor with pepper, mace, grated nutmeg and butter. When done, buttered thin slices of toast are put in the bottom of a deep dish, and the oysters and the liquor are poured over. Miss Leslie instructs "The liquor of oysters should never be thickened by stirring in flour. It spoils the taste, and gives them a sodden and disagreeable appearance.... A little cream is a fine improvement to stewed oysters."

Mr. Grace's article, as well as others written by Karen Herzog of The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel in 1999 and Cathy Benson of Roanoke Times & World News in 2003, concludes that the tradition of oyster stew on Christmas Eve came from the Irish. As Catholics, they were not allowed to eat meat the day before a religious feast. In their native country, they had prepared a stew with a chewy fish called ling, which wasn't available in the United States. Oysters were substituted because of a similar taste.

Maybe my German Catholic descendants in Wisconsin had some Irish Catholic neighbors....

Growing up, the Roos family always made traditional Maryland oyster stew (sans seafood seasoning); we just didn't know it. Milk, butter, oysters and salt and pepper were all we used. This recipe is from the Maryland Department of Agriculture.


1 pint shucked Maryland oysters, with liquor

1 quart milk

1/4 cup butter or margarine

Salt and pepper to taste

Seafood seasoning, if desired

In 4-quart pan, cook oysters, with liquor, over low heat until edges of oysters just begin to curl. Add milk, margarine or butter, salt and pepper. Heat slowly until hot; do not boil. For an extra "zip" sprinkle seafood seasoning on each serving. Makes about 6 cups stew.

I have to admit that I've gone beyond traditional with my oyster stew since I've moved to Maryland and oysters are more readily available. I've added a few things to "enhance" the milk, while not detracting from the flavor of the oysters. This is something that I cook from feel, depending on my mood and the number of servings I am preparing. But a typical Christmas Eve oyster stew at my house now starts by sauteeing some pancetta (or bacon) in pan large enough to accommodate the amount of milk you plan on adding. When it's done, remove the pancetta and add diced leek to the skillet, adding butter according to taste. When the leek is tender but not crisp, pour in the oysters with liquor, and cook over low until edges just begin to curl. Add milk and a dash or two of RedHot, salt and pepper, according to taste. Heat slowly.

If you need more specific instructions, here's a very similar recipe from a friend, Erin Colomb Henson, who is the deputy director of public affairs for the Maryland Department of Transportation.

It has been described as "killer." (Oysterman agrees).


SERVES 2 for a large bowl each with a little leftover or SERVES 4 for a small appetizer

PREP TIME: 20 minutes

COOK TIME: 15 minutes

1 pint oysters

1 cup milk (we use Lactaid, but any kind is fine.)

1 cup heavy cream

3 strips bacon

1/4 vidalia onion (or other onion)

1/2 bunch green onions/scallions


another 1/2 bunch of green onions

1 garlic clove

1/2 teaspoon salt

1/4 teasoon pepper

1/8 teaspoon cayenne

2 dashes hot sauce

Butter (optional)


Chop onion and green onions (all green and white parts). Set 1/2 bunch of green onions aside for garnish.

Finely chop garlic clove (leave separate from onion and green onions).

Put all spices in small bowl except for hot sauce.

Chop uncooked bacon in small pieces and set aside.

Put cream and milk in bowl or measuring cup.

Drain oyster liquor from pint of oysters carefully not to lose any oysters.


Cook chopped bacon until fat renders, but not anywhere near crisp. DO NOT DRAIN. Leave fat in pan that is your cooking base and flavor. Add garlic first, until it begins to turn brown. Add onion and green onions (except for garnish). You may want to add some butter at this time depending on how moist the onions are. Cook until translucent.

Add spices and a few dashes of hot sauce. Add cream/milk mixture and oyster liquor. Bring to a near boil and add oysters. Immediately bring to a low simmer to four or five minutes until the oysters curl.

Serve with scallions on top, a little black pepper and a small bit of butter is optional.

Serve with hot French bread.

Erin's note at the end: "ENJOY … And say a small prayer to the oyster gods, and "Save the Bay"!

If you've got a favorite food tradition you'd like to share, or if you're looking for a recipe, please e-mail Locally Grown at


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architectom said...

I can share my own history- in our family the tradition came from my maternal grandfather from Afton, VA, they had settled there in the 18th c. and apparently it had been a long standing family tradition- their family likely brought the tradition from Scotland where oysters were once prolific and cheap. As I believe many other VA families do, ours is enjoyed on Christmas morning, along with corn battered fried oysters.

Unknown said...

I grew up in South Dakota and we had oyster stew every Christmas Eve. My mom would buy a whole gallon (shucked).