Retro Recipe: The World is Your Oyster Stew

Kristen Frederickson

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Christmas Eve.

Is there another more wonderful, warm, cozy evening on earth?

As a child, of course, it was the longest, most heart-pounding evening made up purely of WAITING.

The stockings were still empty and limp, the boxes under the tree bulging with surprises.

As an adult, though, the beauty of the evening is rooted in the sigh of relief that preparations are over, presents are wrapped, and nothing more can be done. It is time to enjoy the holiday completely.

To add to the joy of our family’s Christmas Eve experience is the comforting knowledge that dinner is already cooked – oyster stew! Oyster stew has to be made a day ahead so the flavors can blend and settle down, giving you the perfect excuse simply to sit before your blazing fire and do absolutely nothing until dinnertime.

And the flavors! Dozens and dozens of oysters – at least a pint of them per person – cream, butter, garlic, celery, and celery salt. All simple tastes on their own, but together they form an elixir of pure luxury, pure rich delight.

There is no earthly reason why I shouldn’t make oyster stew every month, given the love my husband in particular feels for the dish. But I make it only once a year, on Christmas Eve, as my husband’s family did all during his childhood.

My husband grew up in Iowa with relatively simple, inexpensive foods (as most of us good Midwestern children of the 1970s did), but no expense was spared for Christmas Eve oyster stew.

My first married Christmas was also my introduction to oysters in any form (although I am now a total glutton for them on the half-shell).

I was a bit dubious of the little guys, which have to be on anyone’s list of “World’s Ugliest Foods.” But one taste converted me instantly, and we have served an enormous pot of the heavenly concoction every Christmas Eve since, these past 23 years.

Now, you may be brave and strong and possess a heavy-handled, short-bladed knife suitable for opening an oyster.

I, however, am not brave or strong and an oyster-opening knife is practically the only kitchen implement I don’t own. This is because on that first married Christmas here in London, my new father-in-law and I went oyster-hunting and could find none that were already shucked.

We blithely carried home an enormous silver tray of oysters still in their shells, entirely ignorant of the impossible task that awaited us.

Anyone who has ever watched a professional fishmonger open oysters knows what utter sleight of hand is being performed. Ordinary people can take upwards of ten minutes to open one single oyster. Do not even try! This is one task that is best left to the professionals.

This Christmas Eve, as you rest on your laurels as the hostess with the mostest, carols playing and ornaments glittering, the feather in your cap could be the creamy bowls of oyster stew waiting on your candlelit table for your guests.

Who knows? A new tradition may be born for your family, as it was for mine those many years ago.

Serves 8, with leftovers

6 tbsps butter

3 tbsps plain flour

8 pints shucked oysters, in their liquor

6 stalks celery, minced

2 white onions, minced

6 cloves garlic, minced

1 quart whole milk

1 cup heavy cream

Sea salt, to taste

White pepper, to taste

Celery salt, to taste

Tabasco, to taste

Lemon juice, to taste


In a very large, heavy stockpot, melt the butter, add the flour and cook together until bubbling but not browned.

Add the celery, onions and garlic and sauté until celery and onions are softened.

Pour in the oysters and their liquor and stir them constantly over medium heat until their edges curl firmly.

Heat the milk in a separate pan and just before it boils, add it to the oyster mixture.

Whisk until flour is thoroughly incorporated and the broth is creamy and smooth.

Add the cream and then begin adding seasonings to taste. Taste continually as the broth heats through and get the balance of flavors just right to suit you. Be vigilant during this period as even a HINT of boiling the stew will curdle it and your heart will be broken.

Serve with oyster crackers. The flavors intensify over time, so you may make the stew ahead of time. Just be sure not to reheat it too intensely as the oysters will become tough.

Do you have make oyster stew for Christmas Eve? What are your family’s holiday food traditions?

Photo Credit: Cape Cod Cooperative Extension

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