Several years ago at a friend’s house in DC, we kicked off an annual habit of martinis and oysters before the big Thanksgiving meal. He and I shucked them ourselves — my first time to wield an oyster knife — and in spite of the fact that said friend sliced the side of his hand open that afternoon, we’ve repeated the habit every year since.
This year, for a much smaller dinner party, I ordered three dozen oysters from Wild Edibles: a dozen each of Wellfleets, Piper Coves, and Kumomotos (the former being hard to tell from one another, I thought, and the latter being almost a desert oyster — a tiny little pocket of oystery goodness — and a surefire crowd pleaser). The majority martini: a Plymouth Gibson.
Maybe it was the fact that we lived at the seaport when we first moved to New York, or maybe it was hanging out with a group of friends who occasionally got hankerings, around 2 a.m., to catch a cab up to Blue Ribbon in SoHo before they closed at 4. (Okay, we only did that once. More frequently we’ve stopped in at Shaffer City or, in our new neighborhood, Ed’s Lobster Bar, which has the best lobster roll in the city, hands down.) Maybe it was reading Joseph Mitchell essays about the seafood-fueled adventures of Old Mr. Flood one too many times, but we’ve made it a habit to acquaint ourselves with local and imported varieties, differences of East vs. West Coast, and to order them in other parts of the world: Amsterdam, the south of France, or imported from New Zealand when we’re in California. We’ve often lamented the days when New York’s own oyster beds ruled the local roost.
In spite of having read and even taught sections of Mark Kurlansky’s The Big Oyster — his entertaining and informative history of New York City from the bi-valve’s perspective — I didn’t realize that our current Thanksgiving tradition was merely resuming a long-standing tradition in New York and New England. Especially during the heyday of New York’s oyster production (during the late 19th and early 20th centuries the city’s waters produced around 700 million oysters a year) East Coast cookbooks unanimously and prominently featured oysters on the T-day menu.
Take this example from a turn-of-the-century cookbook, for instance:
Like Christmas, Thanskgiving has its own bill of fare which has not been varied for many
generations. Roasted turkey, pumpkin, mince and apple custard pies are served in almost all parts
of the United States. A heavy breakfast, with chicken pie, and a late dinner are common rules. If
shell-fish are in good condition, serve oysters on the half-shell or oyster cocktails as first course; if
not, serve a clear soup. The turkey may be stuffed with oysters, or oyster sauce may be used in
place of giblet sauce, or scalloped oysters may be served as a side dish. Oysters seem to be a part
of the Thanksgiving dinner. Pumpkins, corn, nuts, fruits and bitter-sweet are the choice
decorations.Oysters on the Half-shell
Consomme a la Royal
Roasted Turkey, Oyster Sauce
Potato Croquettes, Cauliflower
Chicken Pie, Scalloped Oysters
Lettuce and Apple Salad, Water Thins
Toasted Crackers, Cheese
The food history timeline from which I took this menu first associates oysters with the Thanksgiving meal in 1620s, though the trend seems to have taken a real upswing in the Gilded Age and endured — at least in the cookbooks sampled — until around WWII. What happened then? They probably became too much of a luxury, I suppose, and in the city, the local beds were long since polluted and harvested into depletion.
At the moment, the reseeded beds in New York’s harbor are good for cleaning up the water only: we probably won’t see these beds yield edible oysters in our lifetimes. But as for me and my house, we’re doing our part to bring the oyster back to its traditional place on the Thanksgiving menu, even if it means expending a little fuel to get them there.