“There were always oysters…and those to praise them”
How odd that my introduction to oyster soup should come via novels written by mainly landlocked authors in the America of nearly two centuries ago; the Laura Ingalls Wilders and Susan Coolidges who wrote of fathers walking through the door carrying flat cans of preserved oysters in their pockets, a treat for families tired of sustenance fare after a winter of blizzards, pressed up against the blunted end of the hunger gap when fields and orchards had yet to catch up with spring-awakened appetites.
Londoners revolted against being served oysters too often which were so cheap and plentiful even Dr Johnson fed oysters to his cat, Hodge, but back in the American Midwest where the newly-laid tracks for the iron horse allowed time and seasons to be overcome via haulage of delicacies such as the canned oyster or those shipped fresh in barrels of straw and ice, they were a treat. The first canneries were built near the oyster ports and over time oyster farming replaced the naturally occurring shellfish scraped up from the bottom of the gulf and eastern coastal waters. Native Americans might have been eating them for over 3000 years and New Yorkers had long grown accustomed to feasting upon the great oyster beds that originally fed the Lenape Indians and then the Dutch as they built Manhattan from the ground up, until the beds expired from familiarity and pollution, but inland they carried the cachet of the new. By 1860 canned, pickled and dried oysters had made their presence felt alongside their fresh brethren, a contrast to the platefuls of stodge needed to sustain people as they toiled in the fields, manual labour always threatening to outpace what could be loaded into their bodies in the form of calories.
Ma Ingalls sometimes cooked her oyster soup with salt pork, served with little saltines crumbled over a broth rich with fresh milk from their own cow. When the Long Winter had caused their cow to go dry, they thinned the broth down with water and made do. Their soup wasn’t a prelude to the goodness to come as Louis De Gouy believes it should be but was instead the main event; this may not have been through choice.
In parts of Kansas oyster stew possesses symbolic and ceremonial meaning and is served on New Years Day, a custom dating back to the arrival of that iron horse and the belief that the oysters would bless diners with fertility in the coming months although those hardworking Christian prairie dwellers might wish to draw a delicate veil over such matters of the flesh. So popular were the bivalves over a hundred years ago, it was not uncommon for ordinary Kansas families to possess their own set of oyster serving utensils even when their kitchens were otherwise sparse in their appointments.
M.F.K Fisher was concerned that we might confuse an oyster soup with a stew. ‘An oyster stew is not stewed, and although they are made of the same things and even cooked almost the same way, an oyster soup should never be called a stew, nor stew soup,’ she declared. The difference seems to be time and impulse, the soup being made as fast as the hand can follow the mind; thickened with flour, crumbs or eggs; and leaving room for what is to follow, namely the main course. A stew, according to Mary Frances, will suffice on its own and it is, as she says, a meal in itself and a more timely one to prepare at that.
The oyster soup in Wharton’s Age of Innocence might have been thickened with cream although it stops short of using the more refined term, bisque, to describe itself: ‘After a velvety oyster soup came shad and cucumbers, then a young broiled turkey with corn fritters, followed by a canvas-back with currant jelly and a celery mayonnaise,’ canvas back being turtle and shad a fine and seasonal fish enjoyed by people living close to the Potomac on the east coast. Its roe is particularly sought after. When Martin Scorsese filmed his version of the book, he engaged the services of food stylist Rick Ellis to bring Wharton’s dinner scenes to life. Ellis turned to Practical Cooking and Dinner Giving by Mrs Mary F. Henderson, published in 1878, to provide a recipe for the oyster soup served to the diners. This soup had a flour and butter roux and was augmented by cream and cayenne pepper and Henderson makes a similar distinction to Fisher; ‘An oyster soup is made with thickening; an oyster stew is made without it.’
Make Helen Bullocks recipe for oyster soup from The Williamsburg Art of Cookery or Accomplished Gentlewomen’s Companion and what you’ll taste is oyster soup in its nascence; the oysters being seasoned with salt and pepper and thickened with milk and a liaison of butter and flour. The recipe was published in 1938 but dates back to 1742 and would have used fresh oysters and their liquor, whereas once canning became popular, the quality of the product was determined by a lack of liquor, thus offering the purchaser more oysters weight for weight. It is a shame because I consider the liquor invaluable. Later recipes see all manner of inclusions such as Worcestershire sauce, mushroom and the fatback or salt pork of Ma Ingalls.
It is to the homely comfort of Ma Ingalls and Laurie Colwin that I gravitate though, as opposed to the froideur of a grand society setting. Colwin is bang on the nail when she wrote about soup being the only thing you need to feel safe and warm on a cold, wet night.
“In all her life Laura had never tasted anything so good as that savory, fragrant, sea-tasting hot milk, with golden dots of melted cream and black specks of pepper on its top, and the little dark canned oysters at its bottom. She sipped slowly, slowly from her spoon, to keep that taste going over her tongue as long as she could.” By the Shores of Silver Lake by Laura Ingalls Wilder.
Hunger is the best sauce, said Pa. Here’s my version of Ma’s simple oyster soup.
two 8oz cans of smoked oysters (in brine or oil)
2 rashers streaky bacon
4 oz Jacobs cracker crumbs
1 tbsp butter
16 fl oz full fat milk
8 fl oz single cream
pinch ground mace
pinch ground nutmeg
pinch black pepper
salt to taste
Put the bacon into a hot pan and fry until crispy. Remove from pan and drain on a paper towel, keeping the rashers warm. Drain the oyster liquor into a measuring jug (if you are using oysters canned in liquor and brine) and add enough water to make this up to 8 fl oz. If you are using oysters canned in oil, drain them well, ensuring as much of the oil as possible is removed and just use water or 8oz of seafood stock. Pour into a saucepan and add another 8 fl oz of water. Take the crushed crackers and stir them, along with the butter into the hot liquid. When it comes to the boil, add the oysters and slowly simmer for a couple of minutes. Now add the milk, the cream, the mace, nutmeg and pepper and bring back to a slow boil. Reduce to simmer for 30 seconds then take off the heat. Taste and adjust seasoning, pour into bowls, crumble the bacon into shards and sprinkle these over the soup.