Entertaining: Cooking with Oysters and Corn

For a traditional Thanksgiving menu, oysters and corn are as American as pumpkin pie


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This month, in food markets, over the phone, at the office, and on neighborhood sidewalks, small talk is all about basting, brining, stuffing, and the perennial goal of achieving a flaky crust.

But spend some time reading cookbooks dating back centuries in this country, and two other elements emerge as important to a Thanksgiving feast: oysters and corn.

America’s first cookbook, American Cookery, by Amelia Simmons, published in 1796, includes the first printed recipes using corn as well as instructions for smothering a fowl in oysters.  

“Even in the Midwest in the middle of the 19th century, women were getting oyster forks,” says Jan Longone, curator of American culinary history at the U-M Clements Library in Ann Arbor. “There were always oysters. Every banquet started with oysters,” figuratively speaking.

Abraham Lincoln and his wife, Mary Todd Lincoln, were known for hosting oyster feasts at their Springfield, Ill., home. As the story goes, only oysters were served at those special 19th-century house parties, with the shellfish prepared in a variety of styles from curried to deviled, boiled to scalloped.

At the Eagle Tavern at Greenfield Village in Dearborn, Taste of History dinners have included an 1837 version of Oyster “Pye” and an 1876 recipe for Green Corn Pudding.

Chef Alex Young of Zingerman’s Roadhouse in Ann Arbor calls corn “the single most significant food in North America.

“Corn is the only truly indigenous American vegetable.”

Some things, it turns out, may be more American than apple pie. “There are many recipes, from New England cookbooks as well as [pamphlets] issued by the Ladies’ Aids and Guild Societies of small towns beyond the Mississippi,” said M.F.K. Fisher, the Michigan-born famed gastronomer and food writer. “All of them agree that it is almost impossible to put too many oysters in a turkey dressing if you are going to put in any at all.”

In The Art of Eating, Fisher also wrote, ”Oyster stuffing, for turkeys naturally, is as American as corn-on-the cob or steamed coot [fowl], as far as Americans know or care.”

Corn and oysters in the American diet date to pre-colonist Native Americans. A sweet pudding of native corn is among the Thanksgiving dishes served at the Plimoth Plantation in Massachusetts. “In 17th-century New England, native corn made its way into many dishes that had formerly been made with English … oats, wheat, and rice,” the website antiquesjournal.com reports. “Adaptations of English porridge and rice pudding recipes were particularly well suited to maize.”

That early blend of Native American and European cuisines (or at least the ingredients) has been rediscovered in recent decades.

“There’s been a cultural rebirth on where food comes from and what food really is,” says Richard Hetzler, executive chef of the Mitsitam Native Foods Café at the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C. “Mistaken identity is a good way to put it. There’s been such a disconnect about the origins of food and the role that Native Americans had.”

Among the enduring American dishes, Hetzler says, succotash is a big one, as is Three Sisters Salad with beans, corn, and squash. Indian pudding, one of the best known, works as a dessert, he says, adding, “Just drizzle it with maple syrup.”

For hosts and hostesses looking to infuse more Americana into their modern Thanksgiving, Hetzler suggests serving oyster stuffing or corn-oyster stew. He’s also quick to add that Americans today wouldn’t like authentic Native American recipes.

“We look at food differently today,” he says. “To Native Americans, food was life. Cornbread was puck-hard and made to carry in a pack, to take a bite out of with a drink of water.”

Because of that, his café and cookbook incorporate native ingredients into contemporary dishes. Cooks, he says, should have fun with Thanksgiving while recognizing our heritage.

That approach satisfies a missing element noted by First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy. On moving into the White House, she observed, “It just seemed to me such a shame that we came here to find hardly anything of the past in the house.”

Fortunately, that appetite for history, our history, can be satisfied at the dinner table.

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