It happened every Christmas Eve when I was a youngster. A bowl of oyster stew was placed in front of me, and the adults stood around and watched for my reaction. In its milky depths floated one, lone grayish blob that I found repulsive. In fact, I couldn’t figure how anyone could lay eyes on such a thing and consider it food. For many years I scrunched up my face and slapped my hand over my mouth. No way was I going to eat that!
It was a tradition on my Dad’s side of the family that every Christmas Eve oyster stew was served. As a child I thought the stuff was disgusting, and couldn’t figure out why my family considered this dish such a delicious tradition. One time I asked my grandfather and he told me it was an old Irish custom. His mother, my great grandmother, had come to this country from Ireland. “We’ve eaten oyster stew every Christmas Eve that I can remember,” he told me. “It’s our tradition.”
But great grandma wasn’t alone. Many Irish people immigrated to this country in the mid-1850s due to the great potato famine in Ireland. A traditional Irish dish on Christmas Eve was a type of soup made from the ling fish that is common in the waters surrounding the Emerald Isle. When the Irish came to this country, there were no ling fish but plenty of oysters, which they claimed tasted like ling fish, so they substituted these in this dish.
While various foods were always a big part of my family’s Christmas holiday, the oyster stew tradition was a much anticipated event for the adults. It was served after going to midnight Mass on Christmas Eve and every child was offered a bowl. The reactions were all about the same, which included a long drawn out “eewwwww,” and then a hand slapping over the mouth. The adults would all laugh uproariously and inevitably someone would say, “Oh good, more for us.” Another fact that puzzled me was why this was called stew. To me it was nothing more than heated milk with that gray blob floating in it. No big chunks of meat, no vegetables, no rich brown gravy.
My recollections of this serving contained no more than one oyster. After that was consumed the rich milky broth was savored slowly and it was sipped from spoons with great gusto and much slurping. Grandma would always put out a big bowl of her Party Oyster Crackers and these would be sprinkled in the stew giving it substance and a little zip. The kids that turned up their noses at the stew did not go hungry. Grandma would also put out a variety of goodies, including her homemade candy and a cranberry scone with orange butter that everyone adored.
I can’t quite remember how old I was when I finally took my first tentative taste of oyster stew, but one Christmas Eve I didn’t scrunch up my face in disgust and slap my hand over my mouth. In a surprise move I picked up the spoon and took a tiny sip and decided I wanted my own bowl with the lone oyster floating enticingly in the rich milky broth. “Uh-oh, we’ve got a convert,” I remember a favorite uncle exclaiming, and from then on I too eagerly anticipated the rich goodness of this dish that was so much a part of my heritage.
Now, every year during this season, I try and make at least one batch of oyster stew, although the custom of serving it on Christmas Eve is no more. Still when I sit down to its rich goodness I am reminded of those long ago Christmas Eves and how my relatives gathered around the table sipping their stew and munching on scones all because, as Grandpa said, “It’s our tradition.”
1 pint oysters
1/2 stick butter
2 to 3 cups milk
Salt and pepper
Melt butter in a heavy saucepan. Add oysters with their juice and simmer gently. Oysters are cooked when the edges start to curl. Slowly add milk and heat to almost boiling. Serve.
Party Oyster Crackers
1 pkg. (1 oz.) Ranch style salad dressing mix
11/4 cups vegetable oil
1 tsp. dill weed
1/2 tsp. garlic salt
2 pkg. (10 oz. each) oyster crackers
Combine all ingredients except crackers. Mix well. Pour over oyster crackers. Bake at 250 degrees for 1 hour or until crisp, stirring frequently. Store in airtight container.
3 cups self-rising flour
1/2 cup granulated sugar
1 tsp. grated orange peel
1/2 cup butter or margarine
1 cup fresh or frozen cranberries, halved
1/3 to 1/2 cup buttermilk
1/2 cup butter or margarine, softened
2 Tbs. powdered sugar
1 tsp. grated orange peel
Heat oven to 400 degrees. Grease large cookie sheet with shortening or cooking spray. In large bowl, stir together flour, granulated sugar and orange peel. Cut in 1/2 cup butter, using pastry blender or pulling two table knives through ingredients in opposite directions, until mixture resembles coarse crumbs. Stir in cranberries. In 1-cup measuring cup, beat egg. Add buttermilk to make 2/3 cup. Add to flour mixture; stir gently with fork until dry particles begin to cling together. Mixture will be crumbly. On lightly floured surface, gently press dough together to form ball. Divide dough in half. Place both halves on cookie sheet; flatten each into 6-inch round. With floured knife or pizza cutter, cut each into eight wedges. Separate wedges slightly, about 1/2 inch apart. Bake 20 to 25 minutes or until golden brown. Cool on cookie sheet 5 minutes. Meanwhile, in small bowl, mix orange butter ingredients until well blended. Serve warm scones with orange butter.