The night was crisp and clear. The lights of the city glittered around us as we drove to church. We were warmed by my mother's wonderful dinner and much happiness and love. Christmas Eve: our first as a couple.
When we reached the church, as Chris tugged me out of the car's back seat, he leaned close and whispered, "What the hell did we just eat? And why did we eat it?"
I remember my surprise. What did he mean? My family ate this same meal every Christmas Eve. Oh, the salad might vary and for several years my mother was enamored with a heavy, black bread created by the owner of a well known local fish market, but the main entree was always the same, oyster stew.
It wasn't a sophisticated recipe. Butter, milk and fresh oysters combined into a rich soup, served by candlelight. Mom always set the table with the creamy white china, edged with a delicate gold web, that my parents bought before my father left for World War II. I don't remember whether or not there were ever baskets of the little salty bits known as oyster crackers. Probably not, at least during the black bread years. It wasn't fancy. There are recipes that contain potatoes or celery or wine, but this wasn't one of those. It was very plain with great puddles of butter and plumped oysters in addition to milk.
Not once had it occurred to me to question why we ate this particular creation for Christmas Eve supper. It was a treat. I looked forward it. It was a tradition.
I explained all of this to Chris later that night as we helped Santa Claus. His only comment: "Both your mom and dad were raised in Kansas, right?"
Well, yes. Kansas. Epicenter of the United States. Not an ocean in sight. Obviously it was not an area of the country that leapt to mind when asked where to buy good shellfish. Why would people born and bred in this sea of corn eat oysters for Christmas Eve dinner? Why had the oddity of this custom not occurred to me before?
On the surface, the answer was simple. It was a practice carried forward by my mother's father. Mother remembers her father driving into Turner for the oysters to prepare this savory offering. There was never a question that oyster stew would be on the table for Christmas Eve supper It was established by his family. Mom hadn't thought to ask the reason, just as I hadn't. Now there was no one left to ask.
My grandmother died in 1912, just after my mother was born. My grandfather died when I was twelve, and the origin of this odd custom was not something my uncle would have been interested in. I decided this would remain a mystery meal. Then, almost twenty years after Chris first asked about oyster stew, I was sitting at my computer in the early hours of an October morning. As I sipped a cafe latte and pointed and clicked my way around the World Wide Web, I stumbled across a group of articles penned by Lynn Nelson, University of Kansas history professor and writer extrordinaire. The title of one of these works of clarity and wit was "Oysters In Kansas."
Intrigued, I eagerly read Lynn's words. He wrote about a yearly oyster feed that took place in the small Kansas town of Sigel. I learned that at the turn of the century "oysters were extremely plentiful along the coasts of America." Further reading told me that oyster suppers were annual occurrences in family homes, churches and whole communities. Sigel, Kansas, was not unique in this habit. Railroads and "new" shipping techniques joined together to provide this treat to inland areas.
Shellfish was shucked, brined, packed into compact half-gallon wooden kegs, and then nested into a larger barrel of cracked ice. These barrels were then loaded into railway boxcars and carried across the land to the windy city. Chicago's busy rail yards received "hundreds of thousands of barrels of oysters" in this manner and shuttled the casks to other areas of the interior United States. In November and December, months definitely containing the letter "R", train depots in Topeka, Lawrence and Lakeside bustled with people. Almost every community sent a corps of men and wagons to anxiously wait for the arrival of the big steam engines pulling cars crowded with this much-in-demand foodstuff. Undoubtedly my grandfather, who owned a moving and transfer company in addition to growing potatoes, Aberdeen Angus beef cattle, and training thoroughbred racehorses, was represented at the depot in Lawrence.
Thanks to Lynn, I had more of an explanation as to why oysters were found mid-continent than I'd had before. Logic tells me that the commonality of this custom throughout Kansas contributed to my family's tradition. It also tells me that oysters would have been a welcome fragment of "home" for my great-grandparents. The Frisbies populated Virginia, Massachusetts and Connecticut beginning in the early 1600's. Before that, the family lived in England. The proximity to the Atlantic Ocean of these locations would indicate a familiarity with seafood and fresh oysters. I can't say for certain what the impetus for this practice was and I'm still searching for the origins of Oyster Stew, but I can at least explain how oysters found their way to Kansas for Christmas!
1 quart oysters
4 scalded milk
1/2 cup butter
1/2 tablespoon salt
1/8 teaspoon pepper
Clean oysters by placing them in a colander and pouring 3/4 cup cold water over them. Pick over the oysters. Reserve the liquor and heat just to the boiling point.
Strain through a double layer of cheesecloth. Add oysters and heat until the oysters are plump and the edges begin to curl. Remove the oysters and strain a second time. Place the oysters in a warmed tureen with the butter and the seasonings. Add the oyster liquor and pour the scalded milk into the tureen. Serve immediately.
Note: My great-uncle, Bill Curth, made oyster stew with this same recipe but in addition to the salt and pepper added a dash or two of celery salt.