The type of stuffing or dressing your family has at Thanksgiving is tribal. It’s about where you come from and your family lineage. It’s personal and any criticism of your version ignites fighting words. Is your stuffing savory or is it sweet, with cranberries or raisins? Is it cornmeal based? Do you put meat or sausage in your stuffing? Is it made from the Stove-Top Stuffing box, or homemade? Do you actually put it inside the turkey, or is it served as a side dish, when it should rightfully be called ‘dressing’ instead of stuffing? All of these questions are important formulary in the type of dressing that makes up your Thanksgiving meal.
Well for my family, we have two very distinct offerings. My mother spends days making the traditional non-meat, stuffing, made from stale bread crumbs and turkey neck-and-giblet gravy. The other, a more exotic stuffing is an oyster stuffing, made from fresh Chesapeake Bay oysters with butter, cream, and saltine and bread crumbs. The oyster stuffing is from my maternal grandmother, who made it for Thanksgiving as far back as I can remember. As kids it was kind of weird, as we were not so familiar with eating oysters. But as we grew older and accepted it as our tradition, we all learned to love it. I have since taken the torch and make it myself to bring to our family Thanksgiving every year.
I order fresh Chesapeake Bay oysters from my local grocery every year for my stuffing. I try to use larger-than-silver-dollar sized ones in the stuffing, and I take off what I call the ‘slipper’ or the gummy part that connects the oyster to the shell, which to me is a sign of the freshness of the oysters.
I’ve heard that oyster stuffing comes from the Northeast, but there’s evidence it’s a Southern dish, too. Both origins make sense. You’d find oyster dressing close to where you find oysters. That could be in the waters on the East Coast, whether New England, the Lowcountry, or the Gulf. As to why they’re in Thanksgiving stuffing, it’s the perfect time of year to highlight oysters, as tradition warns they should only be eaten in months that end in “r.”
But Cincinnati is not a coastal town. Oysters aren’t native to our Ohio River. We’re smack dab in the Midwest states. So why would an oyster dressing be such a tradition in our family? This particular surf-and-turf dish is an old one—dating to the time even before the American Revolution. Even though one might consider it a coastal habit, thanks to railroad distribution in the 19th century, oysters, and oyster stuffing, penetrated our neck of the woods. Great gastronomical guru M.F.K. Fisher argued that oyster dressing was probably a bigger deal in the Midwest than along the coasts: “Not every man could buy [oysters], God knows, and a Middle Westerner was even prouder than a man from Down East to have those shell-fish on his feast-day.”
In Cincinnati, oysters were hugely popular and the city was home to many Oyster Houses before the Chesapeake Bay oysters began being depleted in the 1880s. So many oysters were transported to Cincinnati on ice from 1835 to 1850 , that the stagecoach line was nicknamed the ‘Oyster Line’. This oyster bearing trip was a five day extravaganza back in the day. Oysters were to 19th century Cincinnatians what Chinese food would be like to their 20th century descendants.
One of Cincinnati’s most famous Oyster houses, the Central Oyster House at 120 East Fourth Street opened in 1893 and stayed open longest of any, until the 1970s. An 1858 menu from the Hotel Gibson in downtown Cincinnati showed that oysters were served in a whole host of different ways – escalloped, baked with finer herbs (probably a take on Oysters Rockefeller from New Orleans), baked into a pie, stewed with champagnge, baked with cheese, fried, pickled, raw, in aspic, and cold on a salad. Oysters were considered a luxury and a delicacy, so serving them at Thanksgiving was truly a show of prosperity. I had heard my grandparents talking about how they loved to go to the oyster houses around town, before they all closed.
Americans have been stuffing turkeys with oysters for centuries. In 1763, a Mrs. Gardiner from Boston said, “Loosen the Skin on the Breast of the Turkey or Fowl, and fill it with “Mock Oyster Sauce” made up of beef suet, bread crumbs, anchovy, lemon peel, nutmeg, parsley, thyme, chopped and mixed with an egg. In 1796 Amelia Simmons says to place the stuffing inside the cavity of the bird. There was some debate as to whether it was best to stuff under the skin or to stuff the body. Simmons had several different stuffing recipes for turkey and chicken. 1) Salt pork and bread, 2) beef suet & bread or mashed potatoes and herbs, and 3) “To Smother a Fowl in Oysters – Fill the bird with dry Oysters”. An 1885 Creole cookbook from New Orleans suggests mixing oysters into cakes, frying them, and placing them around the turkey rather than stuffing it with them.
More recently I’ve heard that some Midwest families served the canned, smoked oysters on saltine crackers as sort of an appetizer for Thanksgiving. I’m sure the pilgrims probably had oysters at the first thanksgiving. I’m sure they didn’t have macaroni and cheese. So, I’m going to keep making our family’s oyster dressing every year and enjoying it’s uniqueness to the Thanksgiving table.