On a crisp winter’s night, as you gather ’round the table with loved ones, what steaming dish is that before you? On the Eve of one of the largest—and most feast-worthy—days of the year, you’ll want something light but hearty, warm and rich, but not too dense. That is why this Christmas Eve, thousands of families across the country, especially across the South, will sit down to enjoy a large bowl of fresh oyster stew. This briny treat isn’t just delicious, it’s steeped in centuries of tradition and inherently sewn into the very fabric of our country.
Long before European settlers arrived, bringing along their Christmas customs, American Indians were enjoying this local delicacy. Up and down the eastern coast, oysters were plentiful and delicious, providing for thousands of Native Americans. When Europeans began arriving some 500 years ago, they quickly adopted the native practice of eating oysters. In a tough New World, with unpredictable weather, changing crops, and failing livestock, oysters provided a dependable source of nutrition. Settlers learned to incorporate the protein-packed shellfish into their diets whenever possible, whether raw, in stuffing, soups, or roasted.
Even as the European population grew and America morphed into the country we know today, oysters retained their popularity. They were no longer necessary for survival, but the slippery shell was certainly still delicious. Rather than rely on them for nutrition, new Americans began to rely on them instead for the bracing of old world traditions. European Catholicism called for a strict pescatarian diet on the days preceding special holidays, such as Christmas. In America, immigrants wanted to uphold that religious tradition but found themselves without the customary ingredients. Enter the humble oyster.
In Ireland, a historically Catholic country, Christmas Eve brought great tureens of ling stew. The standard stew, brewed with dried ling (a local fish), milk, butter, and pepper, was simple but delectable and also adhered to the Catholic remonstrations to abstain from meat on the Eve of Christmas. When Irish immigrants arrived in America and discovered the absence of ling, they quickly hunted down a replacement: oysters. The chewy shellfish was similar enough to ling, in both taste and texture, to serve as a stand-in. Similarly, Catholic Italians, who were accustomed to serving “zuppa di pesce,” or fish soup, on Christmas Eve, also incorporated oysters into their annual dinner.
But oyster stew became, and still is, a Christmas Eve ritual across the country, despite region or religion. So how did the briny shell come to cross cultural barriers? Like so many Christmas treats, oyster stew became a tradition based, in part, on its scarcity. Though Americans along the eastern seaboard, especially in the Northeast, could enjoy oysters on a whim, the majority of Americans—especially we hot-blooded Southerners—were left waiting for our favorite shellfish. Before the advent of refrigerated transportation, highly-perishable oysters couldn’t make it far outside the coast.
But with the winter came cooler temperatures and a more conducive environment for transporting the sensitive shell. When December and her (usually) chilly weather hit, inland Southerners knew it was finally oyster season. The shellfish was packed in dense blankets of wet straw and seaweed and sent west into the heart of the South, arriving just in time for Christmas Eve dinner. Paired with such sumptuous ingredients as butter and cream, it’s no wonder the oyster became a special holiday favorite.
Oysters may be available around the calendar and the country these days, but that doesn’t stop us from continuing the tradition. Topped with a dusting of crackers and joined by our beloved family members, a Christmas Eve with oyster stew is a Southern, and American, holiday indeed.
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