Thursday, June 10, 2004
Oyster Stew: a Hot Milk Dish That Needs Some Perking Up
By ROGER M. GRACE
Oyster stew is said to have been originated by the American Indians, well before the Pilgrims arrived.
Indeed, one aficionado of it was Sitting Bull—the chief whose tribe defeated General George Custer’s troops in 1876. Nine years later, he toured with William F. Cody’s Wild West show, and his remuneration included being served as much of his favorite dish—oyster stew—as he could eat.
Oyster stew attained huge popularity in the United States from a time prior to the Civil War and extending into the early 1900s. Today, it enjoys a lesser status, but is far from a forgotten food.
I first encountered it when my wife and I were law students at the University of Texas at Austin. No, it was not at a Gulf seafood restaurant, where the dish would be prepared with freshly shucked local oysters, but in our own apartment. Campbell’s at that time marketed frozen oyster stew in cans, which I tried, and liked. A lot. My wife found she could take it or leave it.
That was around 1967. The item was not new to the market, however. A 1955 edition of “The American Everyday Cookbook,” after setting forth a recipe for oyster stew, commented: “There are now good frozen canned oyster stews on the market.”
But Campbell’s foray into the frozen soup market ended by 1970. I resorted to Campbell’s store-shelves variety as a hoped-for substitute. Yuk! Although oysters were among the first foods to be sold in cans in the United States—in the 1840s—that’s a victual that, in my view, just does not stand up to entrapment in tin.
(Just a few years ago, Campbell’s again brought out a line of frozen soups but oyster stew was not included—and the line was soon abandoned.)
Oyster stew, in its basic form, is comprised simply of oysters cooked in milk, half-and-half, or cream, with butter tossed in, and seasoned with salt and pepper.
Other spices commonly added are paprika, cayenne, and/or mace.
Here’s a recipe appearing in the “Inglenook Cook Book” (1906) which offers the alternative of a moo-less version:
“Drain the liquor from 2 quarts of oysters. Mix it with a small teacupful of hot water; add a little salt and pepper; set it over the fire in a granite saucepan; let it boil up once, then put in the oysters and let them come to a boil. When they ruffle, add 2 tablespoonfuls of butter; when melted and well stirred in, add a pint of boiling milk or part milk and cream. Take from the fire and serve with oyster crackers. If a plain stew is liked, add boiling water instead of the milk and more butter.”
The “Congressional Club Cookbook” (1965 ed.) includes a recipe from the wife of U.S. Sen. Lister Hill, D-Ala., identified only as “Mrs. Lister Hill.” (Her given name was Elizabeth.) The recipe included Worcestershire sauce and “Half cup chopped celery or several dashes celery seed.”
“The Mystic Seaport Cookbook—350 Years of New England Cooking” (1970) includes three recipes for oyster stew. The most elaborate of them calls for the addition of finely chopped shallots and onions, a pinch of dry mustard, and whipped cream.
“The Official Fulton Fish Market Cookbook” (1989) advises adding a “dash” of nutmeg and, when the dish is served, splashing on some sherry.
I suspect that many who have proclaimed a dislike for oyster stew formed their assessment after sampling a bland dish of hot milk in which oysters had been briefly simmered, with a mere pat of butter added. Oyster stew, well prepared, is not so anemic a dish.
Preparing it with half-and-half or cream and with hunks of butter improves the flavor immeasurably. If, however, you’re concerned about cholesterol, scratch that suggestion.
A recipe on the Internet (at cookbooks.com) counsels: “After the stew is hot turn off the heat and let set for a hour or two to get the flavor steeped in. Reheat and serve.”
That’s probably an excellent way of boosting flavor—though it does contravene health warnings against cooked food being left out to cool. As food cools, bacteria multiply. Besides, the oysters would shrivel.
Cooking the oysters a good long time would enhance the flavor of the broth, but that’s no solution; it would ruin the oysters. (By the way, since it is not cooked more than a few minutes, oyster stew is not actually a “stew.”)
A tasty broth can be formed by adding a splash of bottled oyster sauce, found in markets in Little Tokyo and Chinatown and the Asian foods section of supermarkets. It contains oyster extractives and other flavorings.
You might also try seasoning the dish with garlic powder while it’s cooking—and, after it’s served, grinding some pepper on it and drizzling it with chili oil.
Copyright 2004, Metropolitan News Company
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