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Oysters of the Finest Quality

Press reports from Jamestown in November 1915 described a “stag party given at the farm home of Russell Wright” that featured fried oysters on the menu. “A number of masculine neighbors and friends made things very sociable during the afternoon,” we read. “Mrs. Wright was not present.”

“Henry Kotts was the chief chef, and the [chicken] mulligan and fried oysters he served recommend him as a past-master in the culinary art.”

Do not let this incident mislead you to think that oysters were somehow associated with male sexual vitality by our prairie forebears. They were widely consumed by all classes, communities, and genders across the region. I have written in past years of the popularity of oysters in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. It is the traditional association of oysters with winter holidays, especially Christmas, that moves me to revisit the subject now.

An oceanologist writing for Forbes magazine recounts how oyster stew--a simple dish featuring husked oysters in milk broth--became a Christmas Eve tradition across the United States. Americans in 1880, we learn, consumed 700 million oysters, and Irish folk ate more than their share. In the old country, abstaining from meat on Christmas Eve, they were accustomed to serving a ling stew. In America ling were few but oysters were plenty, hence the substitution.

And the bivalves were indeed plentiful and readily available, including in regions remote from coastal sources, such as the prairies. Historian Paul Hedren chronicles the rise of the oyster in Western American cuisine with an article in Montana magazine of western history.

“In the middle and late nineteenth century,” writes Hedren, “the consumption of oysters . . . had become something of a mania in America. Variously enjoyed fresh on the half shell, grilled, fried, boiled in milky soups, or prepared in some complicated recipe . . . oysters then were a democratic food.”

“Democratic” meaning affordable, east-coast supplies being apparently inexhaustible until, of course, they were exhausted by the 1920s, and railroads coming into service in mid-nineteenth century to ship the product inland with rapidity. Such service commenced prior to refrigeration and used ice for chilling in transport.

With our twenty-first-century sensibilities about food safety, we wonder just how this transport took place. References to canned oysters in historical documents and archeological inventories can be misleading. There were pressure-canned oysters, but the great mass of them were shipped “fresh-canned,” as they said--shucked and packed into sealed tins, then not heat-processed, but rather rushed to market one ice--or just during cold winter weather. Un-husked oysters for serving on the half-shell were packed into kegs with seaweed and wet straw.

Thus we find in the Bismarck Tribune of November 1910 advertisements touting shipments of “Booth’s Deep Sea Oysters” with their “delicious sea twang so appetizing and rich,” conveyed in “sealed tins of convenient sizes and shipped direct from the ocean beds in packed containers, so that they reach you just as taken from the shell.”

From the 1880s on newspapers across North Dakota, beginning in early November and continuing through the holidays, shouted “Oysters!” in display ads and ran persistent notices of oyster availability in local restaurants. Along with fresh celery, which was paired with oysters, cooked or raw. Commonly the notices assured customers they could have oysters “of the finest quality,” “served in any style” or “any way you wish.”

Which gets me interested in the most direct way. Stay tuned for tips on historic oyster preparations. Tis the season.

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