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
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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