Oyster Stew

A traditional dish in the Midwest at Christmas, oyster stew, an oyster soup really, just fresh oysters steeped in a milky broth.

Unlikely Fact: Oyster stew is a Midwestern specialty.

As long as I can remember, I’ve made oyster stew on Christmas Eve for my Iowa-born father, who remembers it fondly from his childhood. In my family, he’s the only one who eats oyster stew, just gently cooked fresh oysters in a milky broth, an oyster soup, really. But he doesn’t mind, all the more for him!

The question is, how would oyster stew become a specialty in states like Iowa and Missouri and Minnesota and Nebraska? The coasts, sure, where fresh oysters would be easily had; but the Midwest during the 1930s and 1940s, when oysters would have travelled long distances? (My dad remembers refrigerated rail cars, perhaps that’s it.)

So it’s a mystery to me. What’s not a mystery is how this oyster stew recipe is relished – think silent but obvious appreciation, think spoons clinking the sides of bowls then spooning up the last drops. It’s a keeper, a worthy specialty for the Midwest, proving once again that when it comes to treating those you love to a childhood specialty, it’s just fine for ‘traditional flavor’ to trump ‘local fervor’.

Here's wishing Kitchen Parade readers a very merry Christmas!

Kitchen Parade is written by second-generation food columnist Alanna Kellogg and features fresh, seasonal dishes for every-day healthful eating and occasional indulgences. Is there a special Christmas recipe from your childhood? Share the recipe via e-mail.
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OYSTER STEW

Fresh oysters in a milky soup
Hands-on time: 15 minutes
Time to table: 30 minutes
Serves 4
  • 4 cups whole milk
  • 2 tablespoons flour or arrowroot
  • 1-1/2 teaspoons kosher salt
  • Dash of white pepper
  • 2 tablespoons water
  • 1 pint fresh oysters and their liquor

  • 2 teaspoons Worcestershire sauce
  • Additional salt & white pepper to taste
  • 4 pats of butter, optional

In a saucepan, heat the milk just to the boiling point, but do not allow to boil. (Kitchen Lingo: this is called ‘scalding the milk’.)

Separately, stir together the flour, salt, pepper and water in a large saucepan until a smooth paste forms. Stir in the oysters and their liquor and cook over medium-low heat until the oysters’ edges begin to curl. Add the scalded milk and Worcestershire sauce. Take off heat, cover and let rest for 15 minutes. Taste and adjust seasoning. Briefly heat again to return to temperature.

With a slotted spoon, transfer oysters into four individual bowls, spoon milk mixture over top. Sprinkle with additional white pepper. If you like, top with a pat of butter. Serve immediately.

NUTRITION ESTIMATE Per Serving: 246Cal; 10g Tot Fat; 6g Sat Fat; 89mg Cholesterol; 823mg Sodium; 19g Carb; 0g Fiber; 13g Sugar; 17g Protein; Weight Watchers 4 points
Adapted from an old family recipe from an Iowa farm wife

TODAY'S SMILE

Turns out, margarine is illegal in Missouri! Butter lovers unite! (more info)


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I've not had oyster stew for years -- probably since my dad died. It was a Christmas Eve tradition while I was growing up, too. I love it. But I'd be like your dad -- the only one who ate it.

Sally
 
Alanna,

You’ve hit another key word in my vocabulary.

Oyster stew is traditional for Christmas eve because Christmas eve is a fast day…until midnight. Only seafood, no meat. Of course I grew up eating oyster stew every Christmas eve.

Transportation of oysters to the Midwest was a given through the 19th century. Abraham Lincoln hosted oyster dinner parties in Illinois. Read The Big Oyster (the history of NYC through the oyster) for an eye-opening account. The incredible element was that all classes…rich, middle, and poor, ate oysters every day. They didn’t eat chicken every day, but they ate oysters every day. The steamboats on the Mississippi transported the oysters from the Gulf. When I look at a cookbook circa 1900, a whole chapter is devoted just to oysters.
 
I never knew that they were a "midwest phenomena", but I grew up eating them - all the time actually. At the nursing home we had oyster stew at least once a month and boy! did they love it. When mom lived with us, I always made it for the two of us. I still make it (on Christmas Eve, of course) and DH will eat one bowl so I get the rest. (heehee)

I don't remember seeing "fresh" oysters in the pint until just recently. We always made (and I still make) my stew with canned oysters. The fresh ones just don't taste right to me.
 
Oh, Alanna,
Thanks for the memories. We didn't reserve it for special dinners, just when we were in the mood.
I always use the 'smoked flat-tinned oysters' for a stuffing ingredient, chopped fine, it adds so much flavour and moistness. Most people do not even suspect that they are in there.
We also use smoked oysters for our oyster 'stoup'. We just seem to like the smokiness and flavour better, that is, if there are any left from the 'snitching' before heating, LOL.
Thanks again for the memory,
Huggs, Cait
 

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Thank you for taking a moment to write! I read each and every comment, for each and every recipe. If you have a specific question, it's nearly always answered quick-quick. But I also love hearing your reactions, your curiosity, even your concerns! When you've made a recipe, I especially love to know how it turned out, what variations you made, what you'll do differently the next time. ~ Alanna