Thanksgiving is a time to gather with family and friends and celebrate what matters most, our connection to one another. While oysters aren’t commonly associated with a Thanksgiving feast, they actually played a larger role in the origination of the holiday than you’d think.
The mollusks were likely feature prominently on the tables of early American settlers, unlike a turkey. At the time, oysters were a very popular food source for coastal colonies. However, they were also sometimes considered more of a hardship food than a delicacy.
During this time period, oysters were an easy food to gather. In the Chesapeake Bay, they were so plentiful during the 17th and 18th centuries that ships had to be careful not to run aground on oyster beds. A historian in 1702 wrote that oysters were so plentiful, they could be pulled from the water nearly by hand. Native Americans were also reported to frequently harvest oysters.
As the colonies developed, colonists were eating so many oysters that the population was dangerously low by the 19th century. As a result, oysters became a luxury item for the wealthy until the 1880’s when production began to sky rocket and prices again dropped.
By the 1840’s, canning techniques and the railroads were bringing mollusks across the country. In the 19th century, America entered the Great Oyster Craze, where no event or party was complete without the host serving oysters.
By the turn of the century, oysters were still a Thanksgiving staple. They were served in train cars and five star dinners like that of the New York City Plaza Hotel. In 1954 the Department of Fish & Wildlife even sent out a press release called “Oysters- A Thanksgiving Tradition” (See below).
In modern times, oysters have remained a classic dish in the south. However, more recently, they’re beginning to appear on Thanksgiving tables more and more frequently. As you celebrate this year, treat your family to a classic Thanksgiving dish!