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Oyster Crackers

The Jamestown Alert of 7 December 1883 printed the bill of fare for the “dust cap social and oyster supper given by the ladies of the Methodist Church at the Dakota House dining room.” So now you’re thinking, What the heck is a dust cap social, or possibly, what the heck is a dust cap? That’s a subject for another day, because this week I’m returning to the topic of oysters as a treasured culinary custom in the folkways of the Great Plains, especially during winter holidays.

Previously I have described how railroads made east-coast oysters readily available on the prairies of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, how the press and public hailed their arrival in markets and cafes when cool weather arrived each year. Mostly they came “fresh-canned,” as they said--sealed in tins but not heat processed. The Wahpeton Times in September 1904 advertised, “The Crescent will receive the first fresh canned oysters of the season, Saturday, and continue to have them on sale at all times during the season.”

But just how were they served? If we return to the Jamestown Methodist ladies of 1883, we find their menu promises oysters on the half shell, oysters in “soup, cow milk” (more commonly called oyster stew). Oysters fried, and, more mysteriously, “oysters a la Chicago” and “oysters a la Jamestown.” I suspect these unexplained offerings were some kind of scallop.

The Palace Hotel of Hope in 1907 claimed to serve “the finest oyster stews in the state,” but neither the Palace nor other purveyors of the time described the preparation of this soup often associated with Christmas Eve. So I’m turning to the Bagg Bonanza Farm Cookbook and the Prairie Collection Cookbook (sold by the Bismarck-Mandan Symphony League) for instruction.

The process begins with fresh oysters. Make a broth with milk enriched by cream, along with the oyster liquor, simmered in a pan and, if necessary, strained. Chopped onion and celery can be added, as well as seasonings of paprika, parsley, celery salt, bay leaf, cayenne, or nutmeg. A roux, separately prepared from butter and flour, can be stirred in, and the oysters finally added. When I try this, though, I’m going to begin by making the roux in the stew pot and proceed from there.

As for fried oysters, I’m going with the advice published in the Bottineau Courant in 1897. The writer disparages oysters that are overly crumby, that is, first floured, then egged, then rolled in oyster cracker crumbs. Instead, first soak the oysters in milk, then drain them. After that dredge them lightly in a mixture of four and crumbs from “oyster crackers or the richest butter crackers” and fry them in “very hot” fat. Sprinkle with salt, dust with paprika, garnish with parsley and lemon, and serve with celery sticks.

So far so good, but I also read of nineteenth-century offerings of scalloped oysters. Historic references as well as the Bismarck-Mandan Symphony cookbook explain this is a matter of layering oysters in a casserole with buttered cracker crumbs and baked in a broth of cream, oyster liquor, and a shot of Worcestershire sauce.

Here, now, as described by the Grand Forks Herald in 1906, is my pièce de résistance--pigs in blankets. Take your shucked oysters and “wrap each one tenderly in a delicate strip of breakfast bacon” fastened with a toothpick. “You sprinkle them with pepper, you dip them in melted butter and you broil them.”

I continue quoting the description from 1906, “The bacon melts and drips and the gills of the oysters turn up in shivers of appreciative ecstasy and the ladylike amount [served] to each person is four.” The trenor and posture of this article pitch it to young ladies of the day, but I am on board in 2021. Just increase the serving size.

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