For me at least, that recipe is at last the one I have been looking for. I can change it as I will…but basically it is right with my childhood dream…And yet…yet those will always be, in my mental gastronomy, on my spiritual taste buds, the most delicious oysters I never ate.—M. F. K. Fisher, Consider the Oyster
1. My grandmother Ruby had been a home baker most of her adult life out of necessity. She would wake up at four every Thursday morning, bake several dozen loaves of bread and hundreds of cinnamon rolls late into the afternoon, while her customers, friends and community members from their small village of Brady Lake would stop by the house to pay for and pick up their orders. Despite my grandfather’s employment at the local waterworks and his moonlighting as a house painter, Ruby’s baking was the supplemental income needed to provide for four children, allowing them to sustain a middle-class life in northeast Ohio. Aside from her baked goods, at home she was known for her “stewed” chicken, which was basically boiled chicken with celery, onion, egg noodles, and a lot of salt; watermelon rind pickles that were peculiar and saccharine; a sweet and salty snack mix of Cheerios and Chex cereal she stored in her freezer; and rhubarb crisp, my absolute favorite, which was a combination of rhubarb grown from my grandfather’s garden, canned peaches, a lot of sugar, and, of course, a crumb topping. Clearly, she had a preferred flavor profile. Even though I would sometimes whine about having to eat stewed chicken every time I visited or would gag thinking about choking down a watermelon rind pickle, these were grandma’s specialties, and I knew them well.
The dish she made that always confused me, however, was the oyster dressing, the memory of it distant and less piquant than the others but still there, nonetheless. As a child, I would take an empty plate to a table full of food and see three pans of stuffing. The situation had a very Goldilocks feel to it. The first pan was a typical pile of stuffing that came out of the turkey. The second pan, referred to as “dressing,” looked like a casserole version of the first. The third and final pan appeared to be a grayish version of the second. That was the oyster dressing, full of those canned, chewy bits that gave it that unusual hue, a dish that seemed out of place, like someone had accidentally brought the same thing (but worse). How embarrassing.
I’d take a scoop of the stuffing—arguably, the most beloved Thanksgiving dish—and skip the pan of traditional dressing because it seemed like a redundancy, a poorly executed version of the first, dry and crispy around the edges. With ambivalence and maybe even trepidation, I’d take a small scoop of the oyster dressing, since my exposure to seafood as a child was limited to canned tuna, infrequent freshwater fillets caught on the occasional fishing trip, something from the Gorton’s product line, or the coveted jumbo shrimp during our vacations in Florida. This was in contrast to my grandfather, who would place a generous portion on his plate, claiming to love the stuff. I remember always wanting oyster dressing, never finishing it, and forgetting its flavor. Truly, that was the one characteristic I could not recall. Sure, I had eaten and enjoyed oysters, mussels, clams, and scallops my whole adult life, and I loved stuffing, but I just couldn’t quite place the taste of Ruby’s dish. Anything else that came from her kitchen—stewed chicken, rhubarb crisp, peppermint candies, the tiny and tart green apples growing in their backyard she had used for pies, or even the flat Squirt soda in the back of their refrigerator—brings a flood of feelings and flavor memories. I’m sure it tasted “fishy,” but so do a lot of things. The oyster dressing was an enigma.
When Ruby died in December 2017, my aunt and uncle, my mother’s younger siblings, traveled from their respective parts of the country to my parents’ house in the neighboring town of Ravenna; they reminisced about Ruby’s life, things to make you laugh through the tears. As I sat listening to their stories about grandma, they nonchalantly joked about how she made a pan of oyster dressing every year even though she didn’t like the stuff. That brief anecdote stuck with me, for whatever reason, and, consequently, continued to turn around inside my brain like a weevil in a bag of flour. Why would she make it for all those years, especially if she didn’t care for it? The obvious reason had to be tradition vis-à-vis familial obligation: an old family recipe from either her side or my grandfather’s. I began piling questions and concocting scenarios, both reasonable and far-fetched, to answer the why. Had she acquired the recipe when she waitressed? When she was briefly with her first husband? On her cross-country train trip with her friends? From her days at the farm? Her Pennsylvania Dutch heritage? I was determined to solve this mystery.
2. I remember people talking about “dressing” during those early Thanksgivings. I thought they had either misspoken about the gravy, or near the salad, there was some bottle whose label displayed Paul Newman donning a capotain and Pilgrim attire, and the contents of which might have had a sage and cranberry flavor. So, you can imagine when I first heard oyster dressing, I thought it was some kind of bastardization of ranch dressing with seafood in it, which sounds like a way to ruin a salad as well as your day.
To me, oyster dressing seemed archaic, a dish from yesteryear, like tomato aspic or sandwich loaf or tuna noodle casserole, the kind of recipe found in a Betty Crocker cookbook during the Cold War era and, for whatever reason, was making a comeback. I needed to know this food’s origin story so I could understand where Ruby fit.
The debate in America is whether to call this Thanksgiving side dish stuffing or dressing. Every year, food magazines, news outlets, and bloggers alike resurrect this belabored and seemingly regional argument as to whether one is more correct than the other. The writers always focus on their experience as being the proper one, followed by two hundred and fifty words on regional terminology and technique, and then conclude with a wink, something along the lines of “no matter what you call it, we all can’t wait to plop a helping of grandma’s goodness onto our plates.” The arguments are clichéd, the pathos is equivalent to “I like the things I like because I like them,” and the reasoning reeks of a narcissism of small difference.
But I digress.
If we want to know whether stuffing and dressing are just colloquialisms or actually two different things, we can turn to the Oxford Companion to American Food and Drink (Smith 2007: 197) for a little clarification:
Dressing came into use in the nineteenth century as a prim euphemism for [stuffing]…The verbs “to dress” and “to stuff” have historically connoted distinct culinary procedures—the one having to do with cleaning and preparing of the carcasses of fish or fowl and the other with the making of fillings of all sorts. This verb-based distinction accords to some extent with the popular notion that, technically, stuffing is the mixture actually inserted into the animal to be consumed, while dressing is the same mixture cooked separately, “on the outside.” At any rate, “stuffing” is the dominant term, while “dressing” inheres to regional vocabularies, particularly in the South and Southeast. When it comes to recipes, however, dressing is all over the map.
So, linguistically there is a distinction between these two side dishes, but by stepping back and looking at the country, we observe regional variation in terminology and ingredients, even though American foodways have become more homogenized. In the North, it’s stuffing, and it follows the Anglo tradition of white bread, vegetables, herbs, light seasoning, and some kind of hearty ingredient (butter, sausage, giblets, bacon, suet, etc.). In the South, it’s dressing, it’s only made with cornbread, and it includes Cajun and Creole influence. In the Midwest, it’s a combination of both terms and ingredients with the addition of wild rice stuffing in the Great Lakes region. The Pennsylvania Dutch (descendants of German immigrants who settled in Pennsylvania in the 1700s) use the term filling, and potato, not bread, is the main ingredient. There are further variations and ingredients, such as sourdough, fruit, nuts, other grains, mushrooms, and yes, shellfish, more specifically oysters. None of this should really come as a surprise given America’s vastly diverse geographical, cultural, and socioeconomical characteristics. People tend to use the most affordable and available ingredients, typically those most distinct to the region.
The use of oysters in cooking is no mystery in the coastal states that have them fresh and at their disposal. Where exactly did the tradition originate, and why does it continue to this day, especially in an era where there’s an overabundance of “picky eaters” and bland proteins fill grocery market shelves and chain restaurant menus, like boneless chicken breasts and tilapia? A quick glance at European and American cookbooks from the last four centuries can help. The use of oysters gained popularity in French cooking somewhere in the seventeenth century. One of the earliest appearances of oyster stuffing was in François Pierre de la Varenne’s The French Cook (1651), in which oysters were pan-fried with herbs and vegetables and then shoved into a capon, or a castrated and fattened male chicken. A similar recipe is recorded in the Dutch cookbook The Sensible Cook (1683), a book used in the Netherlands and then later brought to America and circulated in New Netherlands (New York); it calls for a capon filled with oysters, spices, and citrus. In England, The Accomplisht Cook (1685) by Robert May, a celebrity chef of his time, contains a similar recipe but incorporates bread into the filling.
The first published version of oyster stuffing in America was in Amelia Simmons’s American Cookery (1796), where the recipe “To smother a Fowl in Oysters” calls for the bird to be filled with dry oysters, boiled, and then placed in a deep dish, covered with stewed oysters, and served with a parsley sauce. However, the first appearance of oyster stuffing might be “To Roste a Capon with Oysters” in Martha Washington’s collection of English recipes inherited from her first mother-in-law in 1749, aptly named the Booke of Cookery. It’s a little too convenient that the first American oyster dressing recipe (technically?), aside from that of the sensible Dutchmen, was the property of America’s first First Lady. Like if General Foods/Kraft hadn’t picked up Stove Top Stuffing, they could have definitely capitalized on this bit of history and established their own brand: “Martha Washington’s Oyster Stuffing—What America Eats for Thanksgiving!” First Ladies can be very persuasive.
After this initial American introduction, the dish abounds throughout the nineteenth and into the twentieth century in cookbooks up and down the East Coast and the Gulf and into the Midwest: The Virginia Housewife (1824), A New System of Domestic Cookery (1844), Miss Parloa’s New Cook Book (1880), Buckeye Cookery (1880), What Mrs. Fisher Knows about Old Southern Cooking (1881), Cook’s Own Book (1883), Boston Cooking-School Cook Book (1884), La Cuisine Creole (1885), Breakfast, Dinner and Supper (1897), The Picayune’s Creole Cook Book (1901), The Settlement Cook Book (1901), Mendelssohn Club Cook Book (1909), former-slave-turned-chef Rufus Estes’ Good Things to Eat (1911), The U.S. Navy Cook-Book (1920), The Art of German Cooking and Baking (1922), and the forever-beloved Joy of Cooking (1931).
The proliferation of oyster recipes was likely due to the oyster boom of the 1800s. Oyster beds along the New England coast and Chesapeake Bay flourished, and shipping companies and later railroads were packing oysters on ice and shipping them all over the country. Oyster stands and bars were as numerous at that time as microbreweries are today. As Paul L. Hedren notes in “The West Loved Oysters Too!” (2011), oyster dressing was just as much of a tradition in the nineteenth-century frontier West as it is in our twenty-first-century domestic lives: in 1865 Colorado, roasted elk was served with oyster dressing, and in Helena, Montana’s Broadway Fish Market, a can of oysters was given with every turkey purchased for Thanksgiving in 1889. Oyster stuffing appeared on the White House’s Thanksgiving menu in 1897 thanks to First Lady Ida McKinley’s direction to the chef and continued all the way to the Obamas’ last Thanksgiving dinner in 2016.
M. F. K. Fisher’s provocative, informative, and very funny book Consider the Oyster (1941) provides two dressing recipes, one fairly conventional and the other more like an oyster sandwich accidentally misplaced inside of a turkey. Recipes were seen in nearly every cookbook and made by nearly every celebrity chef thereafter (see the Food Network’s website catalogue of oyster dressing/stuffing recipes if you don’t believe me). Oyster dressing recipes grace the pages of so many American cookbooks from the Betty Crocker Cookbook (1950) to The Black Family Reunion Cookbook (1993) put out by the National Council of Negro Women to more recent publications from chefs like Sean Brock, Edward Lee, and “Butcher Babe” Loreal Gavin. The legendary “Queen of Creole Cuisine” Leah Chase served it in her New Orleans restaurant Dooky Chase and included it in the restaurant’s cookbook. Martha Stewart has made it several times on network television, as has Emeril Lagasse. They even tag-teamed it on one occasion. Paula Deen has made it a few times on her shows, once with Deen’s former head chef and culinary powerhouse Dora Charles and once with her own family, “inviting” them along to hunt for and shuck fresh oysters while she talked Southern tradition. Oyster dressing even makes an appearance in Cooking with the Golden Girls (2019), but I’m shocked that Southern belle Blanche Devereaux doesn’t use cornbread. That’s just a sin. A plethora of YouTube videos and articles in all of the popular food outlets offer up anecdotes, recipes, and tutorials for [insert relative’s name]’s “traditional dish” because it wouldn’t be Thanksgiving without it.
3. Ruby kept extensive records and notes of everything she could well into the onset of her dementia. She had a daily journal often consisting of what she and my grandfather did for the day, as well as observations and thoughts. It wasn’t some indulgent exercise but simple and lighthearted. She might say how she and my grandfather had run some errands and saw an old friend at Acme, and it was nice to see them. Or maybe my grandfather fed the birds, but those ornery squirrels kept jumping on the feeders.
She had photo albums and scrapbooks from different eras in her life, all dated and named. If something wasn’t in there, then it probably didn’t happen, or there was, unfortunately, no tangible way of preserving that part of the past. This behavior was fairly typical of a generation of people raised during the Depression, often by immigrant parents who had a strong sense of ethnic or communal heritage and very few possessions. Ruby had a scrapbook from growing up on the farm, of her time working at the historic Summit Hotel in Uniontown, Pennsylvania, of her train trip across the United States with friends, and of my grandfather’s service in World War II.
Two pieces of ancestry that always stick out in my mind were her supposed Pennsylvania Dutch heritage and an Irish coat of arms granted for safely hiding a king. As an imaginative child, I was always fascinated with the anecdote accompanied by the coat of arms, which made this middle-class kid from the Ohio suburbs feel like royalty adjacent, conjuring up romantic images of Irish castles and chivalry. As a skeptical adult, I question the authenticity of the story and the artifact, like I question everything, but it’s unlikely I would hire a genealogist to verify it. The Pennsylvania Dutch aspect, however, confounded me because I had never heard anything about Amish or Mennonite great-great grandparents—of course, there wouldn’t be photographs or a bonnet pressed between the pages of a book. It’s not unlikely, since I have 17 percent Germanic Europe in my Ancestry DNA results, and she grew up on a farm in southwest Pennsylvania on the edge of Appalachia. So, to be German and from Pennsylvania likely meant being Pennsylvania Dutch.
From two cookbooks, Betty Groff’s Pennsylvania Dutch Cookbook (1996) and J. George Frederick’s Pennsylvania Dutch Cook Book (1935), it’s clear that these people used oysters in some of their dishes, but there is no recipe specifically for oyster filling, the preferred nomenclature. Betty Groff, who was tenth-generation Pennsylvania Dutch and one of the leading authorities on the subject, includes an oyster stuffing recipe, although she relates that to reading it on the White House’s Thanksgiving menu every year as a child. Ruby neither had the cookbooks nor the recipes in her piecemealed cookbook to suggest that this dish was passed down the ancestral line.
With regard to her time at the Summit Hotel, now renamed the Historic Summit Inn and Resort, she worked as a waitress during the late 1940s. I speculated that she had picked up the recipe after eating a serving of oyster dressing, maybe with roasted turkey or a fried pork chop, at the hotel’s restaurant during one of her shifts. Despite bragging about being a historical place, the current Summit Inn has a very limited amount of historical information, namely in the area of food and drink. Even after an overnight stay, I found so little in the area of historical records preservation, aside from a short hallway of framed memorabilia, that it seemed unlikely the current hotel management could satisfy the most basic inquiry—they didn’t even know which rooms Henry Ford or Thomas Edison had stayed in! Because neither they nor the Fayette County Historical Society could provide any documents about the hotel’s past dining, I looked elsewhere.
The New York Public Library has an extensive collection of archived historical menus titled What’s on the Menu? Unfortunately, none of these beautifully digitized artifacts came from the Summit Hotel. According to this database and two other periodicals, Hotel World and The Hotel Monthly by John Willy, it seems that oyster dressing typically accompanied a roasted bird (not surprised), either chicken or turkey, and the dish was a popular hotel dinner during the late 1880s and into the early 1920s but declined in popularity sometime after, mainly reserved for holidays, specifically Thanksgiving and Christmas. Duncan Hines, the American food critic who pioneered restaurant reviews for travelers and, yes, founder of the cake brand, in his 1945 edition of the book Adventures in Good Eating listed one of the Summit Hotel’s specialties as roast turkey. Be that as it may, given the decline in popularity of oyster dressing, it’s unlikely that the bivalve-infused side dish would have accompanied this entrée and that Ruby would have eaten it.
Feeling like I had exhausted my options and finding nothing to substantiate her reason for making a single pan of oyster dressing, I was at a standstill.
4. During a family get-together at my parents’ house in the late summer of 2018, I decided to speak with my aunt about Ruby’s recipe. It began with her boyfriend asking about my Ohio Pawpaw shirt, thinking I was a big supporter of the Buckeye State’s grandpas. This led to a brief conversation about the native fruit. Being a Michigander, he brought up the town of Pawpaw, Michigan, and I mentioned its namesake was a product of the pawpaws that once crowded the banks of the town’s river. My aunt then described her recipe for pawpaw pie, which originally began as banana cream pie. She had made it when she had foraged some of the fruit just up the road from my parents’ house years ago. This seemed like the perfect opportunity to ask her about Ruby’s oyster dressing recipe.
My aunt said she possessed a version of the recipe and had just made the dish that past Thanksgiving using fresh oysters. Apparently, everyone had enjoyed it except for her boyfriend, who immediately stuck out his tongue and gagged. He cut in with a comment about the flavor, which made him think he was eating an oyster soaked in its excrement. This initiated a several-minute tangent on why he believed they tasted that way. Rather than engage his theory of the death responses of bivalves, I just assumed he really didn’t like shellfish and turned back to my aunt. “Well,” she said, “enjoy the oyster dressing.”
5. As the weevil continued squirming inside my head, I texted my uncle sometime in late August 2018, still determined to get an answer as to the origin of Ruby’s oyster dressing. He was in the middle of shooting photos for a cookbook project at the time and said he would call at the end of that day’s shoot. When he did call later that evening, I was getting my daughter ready for bed. It wasn’t a long conversation; we mostly caught up on our lives since the last time we spoke. “So, you want to know why mom made oyster dressing all of those years.” His explanation was so simple I thought I had possibly zoned out or missed something. She made that extra pan of dressing every year because my grandfather wanted to try it and happened to like it. And out of all those times she made it, she may have had one bite of the stuff, not much caring for the flavor.
This was not the answer I had anticipated or, at that moment, wanted to the riddle I had set out to solve. The mystery was gone and now the search felt pointless. This was the punchline to some inside joke I had overanalyzed, even mythologized, and clearly didn’t get. I may have responded with all of my theories, one after another, hoping that maybe there was an ounce of truth in one of them. Alas, the truth was simple and hidden in plain sight. She made it for him because people are allowed to try new things, even if those things have nothing to do with their current identity. She made it for him because she loved him. I shouldn’t have been disappointed, but I was.
6. I received my aunt’s version of Ruby’s oyster dressing recipe in the mail. Like the answer I had received from my uncle, the recipe was also simple: butter, olive oil, onions, celery, white bread, chicken stock, oysters, salt, pepper, and poultry seasoning. Her version calls for fresh oysters as opposed to Ruby’s canned oysters. Knowing the frugality of my grandfather, a man who imbibed Fairbanks Port and shrugged off an expensive bottle as being too rich for his taste, the particulars of fresh oysters might have been lost on him. Instead of getting a cheap can of nature’s candy, I went to the deli and grabbed a tub of Fresh Pacific Shucked Oysters, hoping it would be a happy medium between tradition and quality.
Like any recipe I use, I typically alter it to some extent, substituting ingredients, adding more or less of one thing, or incorporating something new. Pulling from my father’s Italian roots, as opposed to my mother’s Anglo-Pennsylvania Dutchery, I used crusty Italian bread, fresh garlic, sage, and oregano. And to treat this shellfish with the dignity that most seafood and crustaceans deserve, I added lemon juice and the timeless treasure, Old Bay seasoning.
As I collected and prepared the ingredients, I thought of Ruby doing these very same things every year with my grandfather in mind. The dish wasn’t for us, necessarily, nor was it out of obligation or tradition or on a whim, but she had made it specifically for him—at first to fulfill some curiosity and then for gastronomic pleasure. Sure, it was a small gesture, but small gestures like that are simple ways to demonstrate the love they shared, the relationship they had, and the life they lived together.
I also thought about the last years of my grandfather’s life, years he spent caring for her when her dementia complicated the everyday, the routine. The question should not have been where did this dish come from but why did she make it. The answer wasn’t a punchline to a joke but simply another piece of their story, no matter how small it seemed. And when he passed, she lived for four years with my parents until her death. Now, I was making this dish and thinking about them, and the days I had spent with Ruby when I lived with my parents for about a year after my divorce, making her coffee or a lunch of pimento cheese and crackers, watching episodes of M*A*S*H* and The Lawrence Welk Show, looking through her photo albums, playing dominoes, and sharing meals and conversations. It felt strange and sad knowing that when I brought this dish to Thanksgiving, it would be the first year without Ruby at the table. We would, of course, reminisce about my grandparents and the lives they led, and how full of joy and pride she’d be because I made one of her dishes. Knowing her, she would have even taken a helping. She might not have said that the oysters were savory, even buttery, and gave the dressing a briny sea salt flavor or that the tartness of lemon juice cut the richness of the oysters or that the combination of everything gave the dressing a robust complexity rather than an overwhelming fishy-herby pungency (or whatever foodies say). She would no doubt comment on how the Old Bay seasoning and garlic were too spicy for her taste.
7. We often turn to family recipes or “comfort food” during times of loss and the accompaniment of sorrow and grief. It satisfies our need for the familiar, which echoes younger, simpler, often happier times when we still had what we loved, but it also functions as a catalyst for so many stories. We create narratives to fill the gaps that a person’s absence has left. Their existence is elevated; the banal and routine become profound and extraordinary. A simple dish, like fried bologna, spaghetti and meatballs, a can of hash, toast and jelly, or even stuffing, can seem beatific and often soothing.
For my family to sit at a table together for an intimate meal after the passing of our beloved grandparent, or any beloved relative for that matter, creates such a deep connection as we scoop food into our mouths while simultaneously recalling moments and stories—some happy, some sad, but mostly funny. Some of us laugh, some cry, some talk about the unusual cuisine they made, but we are all filled with love and food from that person’s legacy, our family’s legacy. These stories become our own; the food becomes our own. That is how I remember, not by the artifacts I store in drawers or boxes or albums, but in the stories I tell, the symbols I create, the food I make.
Serves 6 to 8
1 clove garlic, diced
1 medium onion, chopped
2 stalks celery, chopped
5 cups of Italian bread, dried and cubed
8-ounce tub Hilton’s Fresh Pacific Shucked Oysters (or another tub of oysters from the deli), drained and chopped
¼ cup olive oil
1 tablespoon dried oregano
1 tablespoon ground sage
1 tablespoon Old Bay seasoning
1 teaspoon crushed black pepper
2–3 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
1 cup chicken stock
Preheat oven to 350°F. Sauté garlic, onion, and celery in olive oil for about 8 to 10 minutes. Combine the cooked ingredients with the remaining ingredients in a large bowl and stir well. Transfer to an olive oil greased 9 x 9 inch baking dish. Bake for 45 minutes to 1 hour (until golden brown). Serve with a decent craft beer.