Thursday, June 17, 2004
With a Tureen of Oyster Stew, Christmas Eve Feast Begins
By ROGER M. GRACE
Eating oyster stew on Christmas Eve is a tradition in many families.
It’s said to have been started by Irish immigrants who had fled here during the potato famine in the mid-1800s. The immigrants had been accustomed to a Christmas Eve stew containing ling fish, which wasn’t available here. John Gleeson, coordinator of the Irish Studies Program at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, was quoted in a 2001 article in The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel as explaining that the Irish substituted oysters, the closest facsimile in taste.
A reason for a seafood dish on Christmas Eve was that eating meat the day before a religious feast was proscribed by the Catholic Church. (In Italy, fish soup, “zuppa di pesce,” was likewise consumed.) In “True Christmas Spirit” (1955), Rev. Edward J. Sutfin wrote:
“Since the vigil is a fast day, fish is in order. Whereas in Brittany the codfish takes the honors of the day, American custom associates piping hot oyster stew with Christmas Eve.”
In some homes Mexico, Oyster stew (“estofado de ostras”) also came to be a dish served on Christmas Eve.
Probably because oyster stew is a warming dish, ideal for winter nights, the custom of serving it on Christmas Eve spread throughout the United States, beyond the Irish and Catholic communities.
Also from the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel is this information, contained in a 2002 article:
“According to Jerry Apps, University of Wisconsin-Madison professor emeritus and author of numerous books on Wisconsin history: ‘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.’”
That tradition did not emanate from Germany, the waters there being too cold for oysters to dwell in them.
A Danish American recounts on the rootsweb.com website: “Christmas Eve at Grandpa and Grandma Johnson’s always meant oyster stew with little crackers, celery sticks and dessert.”
A 1987 article in the Houston Chronicle mentions that in the Gulf area, oyster stew has been “a favorite Christmas Eve dish since the 1800s.”
“Oyster stew is what makes Christmas Eve complete for some families,” a Cincinnati Post writer observed in a 2002 article, adding: “It’s tradition!”
Just as Christmas presents are opened in some families on Christmas Eve, and in others on Christmas morning, oyster stew is served by some as a Yule breakfast or dinner.
According to a column last Christmas in the Roanoke (Va.) Times & World News, “The aroma of oyster stew on Christmas morning infiltrates many homes in the Roanoke Valley.”
The columnist, Cathy Benson, related that the tradition in that vicinage went back to the 19th Century. She wrote:
“How to get oysters quickly from the Chesapeake Bay to the Roanoke Valley? The iron horse. According to my 82-year-old father, Jack Thomas, in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, none other than the Norfolk and Western Railway carried those perishable but plentiful oysters to Roanoke.
The transportation of oysters is also discussed in “Bill Neal’s Southern Cooking” (1989). Neal recounts:
“Before acceptance of refrigerated food transport (for meat only, first, and that was in the 1880s), inland food supplies depended on the weather. Even after the first frost warm spells threatened the integrity of almost any product, especially seafood. Only December, though the fourth ‘R’ month, guaranteed enough sustained cold weather for shipping. Then, from Baltimore, to Charleston, to New Orleans, oysters were shoveled onto the flat backs of horse-drawn wagons and packed down in wet straw and seaweed for an inland journey sometimes lasting two weeks or more. Far from the coast, oyster became a symbol of the arrival of the winter holiday season, appearing in the markets by Christmas Eve and on the tables that night as oyster stew.”
Difficult as it is to imagine, not everyone enjoys oyster stew.
In the December, 2003 issue of an Arizona State University newsletter, Jerry Coursen, a faculty associate, wrote:
“When I was a kid, my father (now deceased) continued a tradition celebrated in his family: the Christmas Eve meal was oyster stew. Growing up, I remember looking forward to oyster stew, then, maybe some caroling or a candlelight service, but the reverie was always quashed by the reality of the fuss that’d ensue as we sat down to the soup. My younger sister hated oyster stew with a passion. We hit kind of a happy compromise when she discovered that the cat would assist her in surreptitiously disposing of her hated oysters.”
That was no doubt one happy feline.
Copyright 2004, Metropolitan News Company
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