Across many parts of the country, oyster lovers will sit down to a piping bowl of oyster stew over the holidays. Oyster stew has cemented itself as a holiday tradition, with a history stemming from indigenous meals, catholic customs, and Irish immigrants. In fact, oyster stew is such a popular holiday tradition, it’s also how oyster crackers got their name.
In the early days of our nation, English settlers were greeted by Indigenous tribes that had been consuming oysters for centuries. Over time, they learned how to prepare the shellfish for themselves, adding new adaptations to recipes and coming up with their own original preparations. The oyster was an everyman’s food, consumed by all because of their abundance. Records show that oysters were so popular that in 1880, over 700 million were harvested.
As more immigrants flooded into the country, they brought more and more culinary styles with them. This combined with the ubiquity of the oyster led to the development of several iterations of oyster stews. More and more, people were combining ingredients they were familiar with in oyster-based meals.
At the same time, food was being transported more widely across the nation. Because refrigeration was almost non-existent, foods like shellfish were most widely consumed during winter months. This was due to food being able to travel further without spoiling. As a result, the myth of the “r” month oyster was born. As well, oysters started to become associated with Christmas, because they were most readily available to be consumed during December.
By the mid-1800s, the country flooded with Irish immigrants. Poor, starved from the potato famine, and in search of sanctuary, the Irish brought with them their strict Catholic diets. One tradition of which, was not eating meat on the Christmas holiday. As a result, they turned en masse to the oyster, combining it with ling fish, pepper, butter, and milk to create some of the first oyster stews. The stew was readily available and cheap to make and fit with their dietary traditions, leading to it becoming a popular Christmas meal.
By the 1900s as populations exploded, the tradition carried on. New refrigeration methods were developed and oysters continued to explode in popularity. The Irish and many other settlers pushed west, taking their traditions and their foods with them. Oyster stew becomes a national holiday staple, and is still honored today as a traditional holiday meal.