Stewing on Oysters for Christmas

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Stewing on Oysters for Christmas

By Damon Lee Fowler

When we lived out in the country during my childhood, there wasn’t a lot of last minute bustling around on Christmas Eve. It was a time for settling in with family, a time for children to daydream of Christmas morning, and for parents to relive that daydreaming through their children’s excitement.  As evening set in, my parents would bundle us up and we’d drive through the chilly twilight to the home of Macie and Will Queen, an older couple in my father’s congregation. They weren’t related to us, but their daughter Margaret was my mother’s best friend, and they had wholeheartedly adopted the preacher’s family as their own. We even called them Mama Macie and Papa Will just like the other grandchildren. That modest one-story farmhouse was where their whole clan gathered for all the winter holidays. Crowded and noisy with a hubbub of children, aunts, uncles, cousins and adopted family, it smelled richly of hot coffee, Christmas cookies, and creamy oyster stew, its steaming surface yellow with butter and flecked with lots of black pepper.

Oysters have always had a special place on the Southern holiday table, and in the upstate, oyster stew was to Christmas Eve what turkey was to Thanksgiving. Before refrigeration, oysters couldn’t be shipped away from the coast until cold weather set in, which was coincidentally, just in time for the holidays. Aside from the need to keep them safely cold, there’s another reason people avoided oysters during the hot weather months. Summer is their spawning season and while that’s going on their flavor and texture simply isn’t good. It’s only when the air turns crisp and the waters cool that oysters are at their best—just in time for that Christmas Eve stew.

Mama Macie is long gone, but to this day, my own holiday doesn’t seem complete without her stew. It may be simple, it may not be especially elegant, but to me it’s heaven in a bowl and says Christmas better than eggnog.

Mama Macie’s Oyster Stew

Serves: 6-8
The most luxurious oyster stew is equal parts oysters and milk. Here, its 2 parts oysters to 3 parts milk, since Mama Macie and Aunt Margaret saved the largest select oysters for frying. You can increase the oysters to 3 pints or make it a little thinner by adding another pint of milk to the mix. It multiplies easily; just keep the proportions the same. Serve with plenty of saltines or oyster crackers.


2 pints shucked oysters
4 cups whole milk
1 pint cream or evaporated milk
4 to 6 tablespoons butter
Salt and whole black pepper in a mill


Drain the oysters in a sieve set over a bowl, saving the liquor, and pick over them for any lingering bits of shell. Put the reserved strained liquor, milk, and cream in a large, heavy bottomed saucepan. Bring to a simmer, stirring occasionally, and add the butter. Season to taste with salt and pepper and let simmer 5 minutes.

Add the oysters and simmer until they’re plump and firm and their gills curl, about 5 minutes, taking care not to overcook them. Taste and adjust the salt and pepper and serve at once, making sure that a goodly portion of oysters and butter makes it into each bowl.

Aunt Margaret’s Fried Oysters

Serves:  4-6 as a main course

Though many families had only the stew, for Mama Macie it was just part of a whole feast of oysters. She always saved back the largest, fattest specimens, which Aunt Margaret would roll in cracker meal and fry to crisp, golden perfection.

4 dozen large oysters
½ cup all-purpose flour
2 large eggs
2 cups fine cracker crumbs (sold in some markets as cracker meal)
Salt and pepper to taste
Lard, or peanut or canola oil, for frying

Drain the oysters and spread them on two layers of paper towels. Have the flour, eggs, and crumbs ready in separate bowls. Season the crumbs lightly with salt and pepper. Put enough lard or oil in a deep Dutch oven at least 1 inch deep but not more than halfway up the sides. Heat until hot but not smoking (375 degrees F.) over medium high heat.

Roll half the oysters a few at a time in the flour, shake off the excess, dip in beaten egg and then roll them in the seasoned crumbs until well coated. Slip them into the fat and fry until well-browned, about 2 to 4 minutes, turning if necessary.

Meanwhile, bread the remaining oysters. When the frying oysters are done, lift from the fat with a wire frying skimmer, blot briefly on absorbent paper, and transfer to a wire cooling rack set over a rimmed baking sheet. Repeat with the remaining oysters. Serve piping hot.

Damon Lee Fowler is a culinary historian and author of six cookbooks, including Classical Southern Cooking, Damon Lee Fowler’s New Southern Baking, and The Savannah Cookbook. His work has also appeared in Food & Wine, Bon Appetit, and Relish. Damon lives and eats in Savannah, Georgia.

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Reader Comments:


I miss you

By Rose Tabor on December 20, 2013

I am not from the South, where this is, I’m learning, a great tradition! We live in a small town with 2 Mom-and-Pop grocery stores, but I’ve seen oysters at the meat counter. This winter, when the snow is deep, we’re trying your recipe! Thanks for all you do, we really enjoy your shows and have every one of your cookbooks, not to mention a stack of your mag’s that we’ve picked up when on the road! It just feels like you are an old friend. What fun!!

By Sharon Russell on June 29, 2010

I just start with the half and half and whole milk on a low heat and add oysters and pepper, bring the temp up slowly and don’t let the milk stick or boil over! Add a big stick of real butter and enjoy!

By jennifer on March 15, 2010

I have a problem with making the oyster stew. I have tried it several times and my milk curdles and I end up throwing it all away. What is causing that?

By Dora on March 12, 2010

I have a holiday open house every year for as long as I can remember. It gives both sides of my huge family and my new inlaws and all my friends time to get together with no holiday stress, to just have good food and drinks and fellowship. My daddy always brings two of my favorites, one of these being the oysters for the stew and I make it or he makes it and brings it in hot! We generally do oysters, butter, whole milk or half and half and lots of pepper. At least 95% of us inhale it and the others just looks at us like we are nuts. But it is our tradition for the holidays and I am so happy to have those memories with my daddy.

By jennifer on February 24, 2010

We are at our lake condo for New Years and we are planning to fry some oysters and this recipe sounds excellent. We had wild live blue point oysters on a half shell last night for an appetizer with our New Years Eve prime rib dinner. Thanks for the recipe. Happy New Year to all!

By Paul & Missy on January 01, 2010

Paula,Paula,Paula…I love oyster stew..well..oysters anyway possible..when we got married my husband refused to try them, but finally did, and now loves them..they remind me of when I was young and my dad and I would make them..he passed in 1987, and of course we always would have a raw one with salt and pepper first..two weeks before he passed was easter and we had him and mom to our place for dinner..made turkey, ham and the whole works including oyster stuffing…when he came in he said I haven’t eaten for 2 weeks thinking of this meal…well, he had 3 big plates of everything and was so happy. I miss him greatly but on Thanksgiving,
Christmas and Easter we always have turkey and oyster stuffing and I always think of him..of course we have oysters any time I can get them throughout the year also..thanks for the memories.

By bonnie on December 31, 2009

I have a questions for Paula.  I love her recipes and i right them down while watching the show the only this is I can not have anything with nuts at all.  I was wondering if these recipes can be made with out nuts and what can i put in the place of nuts the one recipes is a bread pudding and she put the bread and the egg custard mixute then you mad a brown sugar with butter and pecan it looked so good what can i put in place of the pecan please let me know and while the show is running if she could tell you if you can not have nuts what to use it there place that would be helpful.  I have alot of her cookbooks and i know she like to cook with nuts so i need her help


have a great new year

By Carol Wright on December 31, 2009

When I was a farmer’s wife in Iowa we always looked forward to Oyster stew at the end of corn harvesting. The corn was in and Oyster stew was steaming hot on the table. And , like other readers We had oysters in all the turkey dressing.
Please never change Paula.

By Patty Merkley on December 30, 2009

thanks for the recipe it is like mine my family always enjoys it so much. my father thought i could make the best oyster stew he ever ate. he passed away in 1986 but i can never make this dish without thinking of my dad . thanks again and i hope everyone has a Merry Christmas and a Happy and prosperous New Year!

By jessie johnson on December 25, 2009

I neve even tasted am oyster until I was 18 years old.  I was raised in a German community.  But once I tasted them I was hooked.  I just didn’t know what I was missing.  Thank you for your show and just being you You always make me grin.
Gayle of Nebraska on December 24,2009

By tinagirl1234 on December 24, 2009

I have never heard of Oyster Stew for Breakfast before, but it sure sounds good to me!  i think I will be giving it a try.  Yum, Yum!

By Theo Beth Thompson on December 24, 2009

While I am a yankee as they come my grandmother, who has passed away, always made oyster stew for Christmas Eve! We would have the stew and then go to midnight services at the church and would ALL be asleep well before the sermon!! hehehehe
Thank you for sharing the recipe and memory attached to it as it makes recipes that much more special.

By Trudy on December 24, 2009

Oyster stew was a favorite in the fall of the year at my Gma and Gpa Riley’s house, plus we always had oyster dressing for Thanksgiving and Christmas.  I serve it to my own family with fond memories of those good ole days.

By Karen Davis on December 23, 2009

My Daddy used to fix this for our Christmas breakfast along with Country Ham, Red-eye gravy, hot biscuits and scrambled eggs.  Daddy died 5 years ago and we have kept up his tradition. I can’t wait until Friday morning!  Yum Yum!

By Sharon Wagoner on December 22, 2009

I was born and raised in Ft. Lauderdale, FL and when my four brothers and I were growing up my mother always had a big pot of oyster stew for Christmas Eve and she cooked it just like you, it was so good. I still to this day try to have it on Christmas Eve, but it was never a tradition with my own family because they didn’t care for oysters.

By oferrel bryant on December 22, 2009

I am just ready to cook oyster stew tonight when I saw your recipe, it is the exact same as mine, except I add a little shredded cheddar cheese, perks it up a bit!!! Paula, I’ve got to meet you on the cruise in Jan. people think I look like you and call me Paula all the time. Love you to pieces and can’t wait to see you on the boat!!!! Diane

By Diane DuPre on December 22, 2009

My husband’s grandmother ALWAYS served oyster stew for supper Christmas night!!! It was a tradition!!! She has been gone now for 14 years!!! Maybe I need to start a new tradition this year!!! Thanks for the memories!!!

By Gina Sweatman on December 22, 2009

My Father was born on the Eastern Shore of Maryland and loved seafood.  My KY Mom learned to make great oyster stew, fried oysters, and especially good scalloped oysters which we had at Thanksgiving and Christmas dinners.  Nothing better than all of these!

By Sarah on December 22, 2009

this brought back memories my daddy was from arkansas and made this stew always for christmas moving around this was not tradition oh what a joy when i made my home in lynchburg va to find this tradition again thanks for the memories!

By emily ford on December 22, 2009

No, my family isn’t from the South—in fact, we’re originally from Iowa but we, also, have oyter stew every Christmas Eve.  In reading Damon Fowler’s story, I’m reading my own!  All the relatives gather at Mom & Dad’s Christmas Eve for oyster stew, gifts from each other and goodies & carols afterward.  Then most of us head into town for the candlelight service at curch.

By Nancy on December 22, 2009

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