Along with family and friends, Thanksgiving dinner invites history, tradition and a blending of cultures to the table. Across the nation, it’s often regional cooking with local ingredients that defines the menu. What better way to combine a quest to eat local with historical cooking than to consider something well-known on the Key Peninsula, fresh oysters prepared in a dish that goes back over 300 years: oyster stuffing.
It’s true that seafood was abundant in New England in 1621, making it highly likely that when the Pilgrims and Wampanoag Indians ate together there were oysters on the table, along with mussels, clams and even lobster. However the earliest cookbook. “The Accomplisht Cook” (sic) wasn’t published until later, in 1660 in London. In that well-respected cookbook, the author Robert Mays did indeed include a recipe for a stuffing using oysters.
There are countless variations of stuffing. Some families add sausage to their stuffing, and maybe apples too. Other just keep it simple, relying on the juices of the turkey for flavor. Plenty of people, my husband included, can’t imagine stuffing made with anything other than cornbread––while others don’t care what bread is used as long as chestnuts have a starring role. Some recipes call for no bread at all, opting for rice or soda cracker crumbs instead.
And so it goes for oyster stuffing; there are many variations. One thing curious cooks have discussed and tested is whether you need to shuck fresh oysters or if you can use oysters packed in a jar with their own liquid. The general consensus: It doesn’t make one bit of difference. It always turns out the same: delicious.
For wordsmiths and the culinary-minded, is it stuffing or dressing? While the words “stuffing” and “dressing” are often used interchangeably when referring to a Thanksgiving side dish there is a difference. According to most dictionaries, stuffing is “a mixture used to stuff another food, traditionally poultry, before cooking”— dressing is cooked in a pan outside of the turkey cavity.
My mother never stuffed the turkey. She always made two dressings, both virtually the same except one contained raisins, which almost everyone in the family loved, and a smaller pan without raisins, for my dad.
Living on Key Peninsula, one thing is sure—I’ll be baking oyster dressing alongside our turkey this year and you can bet I will honor my husband’s Texas roots by making it with cornbread. One can substitute cornbread cubes for bread cubes in equal parts or a mixture of both but keep in mind cornbread is heavier than regular bread. Commercial cornbread is usually too sweet for most tastes so a basic recipe is preferable. Regardless of which you choose, make sure it’s cut into cubes and a little bit stale. Ideally, it’s baked a day or two ahead, cut into cubes and left to air dry––lightly covered with a tea towel to prevent nibblers of all shapes and sizes.
The 1920s Oyster Stuffing recipe here is from Michelle Ferrand of Cup of Zest, a delightful food blog featuring vintage recipes. She said she “adapted the recipe from a New Orleans favorite, the ‘Picayune Creole Cookbook’ and goes on to say “it’s packed with briny oysters, smoky ham and bright herbs.”
Whether you make this recipe or have a family favorite of your own, drop us a line at firstname.lastname@example.org. Happy Thanksgiving to you and yours.
Prep time: 45 minutes, total time: 1 hour 30 minutes, yield: 16 servings
½ cup unsalted butter
2 cups finely chopped onion
5 cloves garlic, minced
2 dozen oysters, liquor reserved
12 cups stale bread cut into ½-inch pieces (2 loaves of French bread)
1½ pounds smoked ham hock, meat torn into pieces
1 cup low sodium chicken broth
1¼ cup finely chopped parsley
1½ tbsp. finely chopped sage
1½ tbsp. thyme
1 tbsp. black pepper
Juice and zest from half lemon
Preheat oven to 350 degrees and butter a 9 x 14 inch baking dish.
Melt butter in a medium pan over medium-high heat. Add chopped onions and garlic. Cook until translucent, about four minutes.
Place oysters in a medium bowl. Using kitchen shears, cut oysters into bite-sized chunks. You can cut them in the bowl so any liquid from cutting the oysters is not lost.
Combine bread, cooked onions and garlic, ham, oysters and their liquor, and remaining ingredients into a large bowl. Using your hands, mix well. Transfer to baking dish. Bake until cooked through and top has browned, about 45 minutes.