The brave Christmas Eve of 1982 involved oyster stuffing. It was the Christmas before my marriage. My husband’s family, large and in full storytelling mode, put out turkey, ham, sweet potatoes, mashed potatoes, giblet gravy, rolls, seven-layer salad, green beans, corn, green rice, cranberries, homemade rolls, two kinds of Jell-O salad (lime green and pink), pies, cakes, sweet tea and more. The numbers of dishes, the casual atmosphere and the sheer volume of people created a sphere of awe for me. The oyster stuffing had me bracing myself.
“He was a brave man who first eat an oyster,” Jonathan Swift says in “Polite Conversation” and M.F.K. Fisher, food writer extraordinaire, quotes him in the first pages of “Consider the Oyster.” I nod as I read this. Oysters are peculiar in stuffing. Who would want such a combination? I do, apparently, and so does my husband, whose palate is varied enough to encompass duck (what he calls hunter’s food), pork rinds and pâté. I ask you: Can those taste buds be trusted? The bizarre answer is: Yes. Proof? Oyster stuffing doesn’t taste fishy. The chopped oysters add moisture and depth — and for me, wonder and awe.
As Fisher says, “An oyster leads a dreadful but exciting life.” They are born as spat, one of thousands from their mother, far from their father, adrift in water. If they are lucky, they attach to something satisfying in a salty bottom where unpolluted tides wash to and fro. In fact, coastal waters off the Eastern U.S., in Britain and the Mediterranean teemed with oysters, and our forefathers and cooks partook. The cookbooks of early America all had recipes for oyster stuffing, or dressing, depending on your idiom preference. This tide of taste spilled over into our landlocked region — oyster stuffing was popular in the 19th century and remains so today, even if people substitute canned oysters at times.
If you are among the uninitiated, give it a try. Join with us fish folk but beware, there’s no turning back.
1-pound loaf of white bread, cut into 1/2-inch cubes
1/2 pound bacon cut into 1/2-inch pieces (optional)
1-2 tablespoons olive oil (if needed)
1/2 cup butter
2 cups finely chopped onions
1-1/2 cups diced celery
1 tablespoon chopped garlic
1-1/2 tablespoon chopped fresh sage
1-1/2 tablespoon chopped fresh thyme
1/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg
1/2 cup chopped fresh parsley
3/4 cup chicken stock
1/4 cup milk
2 eggs, beaten
18-24 pieces of shucked oysters, cut into pieces
Cut bread cubes and dry overnight or toast in a 325-degree oven until crisp. Set aside in a large bowl. If you are using bacon, fry the 1/2-inch pieces in a heavy skillet until crisp. Transfer to paper towels and drain, reserving fat in skillet. If needed, add olive oil to make about 1/4 cup of fat. Or, if you are not using bacon, melt half of the butter in a skillet. Next, add onions and celery, cooking until onions are translucent, about 6-8 minutes. Add garlic, sage, thyme and nutmeg; cook for 30 seconds more.
Transfer mixture to the bowl with bread cubes, stir in bacon (if using it), parsley, stock, milk and eggs, remaining butter, and oysters.
Transfer stuffing to a buttered 3 to 3-1/2 quart shallow baking dish. Bake, covered, in middle of oven 30 minutes, then uncover and bake until browned, about 30 minutes more.
Makes: 8-10 cups
Nina Furstenau teaches food writing in the Science and Agricultural Journalism program at the University of Missouri. She is the author of “Savor Missouri, River Hill Country Food and Wine” and “Biting Through the Skin: An Indian Kitchen in America’s Heartland.” She wrote this post for her column, A Spiced Life, December 24, 2013, Columbia Tribune.