Entertaining: Cooking with Oysters and Corn

For a traditional Thanksgiving menu, oysters and corn are as American as pumpkin pie
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Photographs by Cybelle Codish

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.

 

OYSTER PUDDING

(Serves 4-6)

1 cup shucked raw oysters with their liquor
1/4 cup canola oil
1/4 cup chopped leek (white part only)
2 tablespoons minced garlic
3 cups cubed day-old bread
2 tablespoons minced fresh thyme
2 tablespoons minced fresh chervil
2 tablespoons minced flat-leaf parsley
8 large eggs
2 cups heavy cream
Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste

 

Preheat oven to 350. Butter a 9-by-13 baking dish or a 10-inch glass pie plate.

In a small saucepan, heat the oysters and their liquor over medium heat just until the edges curl, about 2 minutes. Remove from heat and set aside.

In a small skillet, heat the oil over medium heat and sauté the leek and garlic until soft, about 5 minutes. Remove from heat.

In a medium bowl, combine the bread and herbs. Add the leek mixture. Add the oysters and their liquor. In a small bowl, whisk the eggs and cream together. Pour over the oyster mixture. Toss until well blended and the liquid is absorbed by the bread. Season with salt and pepper.

Spread the mixture in a prepared dish and bake 30-40 minutes, or until the center is firm and a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean.

Remove from oven and let cool for 5 minutes. Cut into squares or wedges to serve.

The Mitsitam Café Cookbook, by Richard Hetzler (nmai.si.edu or amazon.com)

 


NEW ENGLAND OYSTER STEW

(Serves 4)

20 fresh oysters, shucked, liquor reserved
1 tablespoon fresh thyme
1/2 teaspoon celery seed
Pinch cayenne
2 cups heavy cream
2 cups milk
4 tablespoons sweet butter, cubed
Salt and pepper
1/4 cup chopped parsley

 

In a heavy-bottomed saucepan, heat oyster liquor with thyme, celery seed, and cayenne. Add oysters and cook until their edges curl. Add cream, milk, and butter. Heat slowly, stirring gently; do not boil. Season with salt and freshly ground pepper. Add chopped parsley.

— Chef Alex Young, Zingerman’s Roadhouse, Ann Arbor

 


To Smother a Fowl in Oysters:

“Fill the bird with dry oysters, and sew up and boil in water just sufficient to cover the bird; salt and season to your taste. When done tender, put into a deep dish and pour over it a pint of stewed oysters, well buttered and peppered. Garnish turkey with sprigs of parsley or leaves of ‘cellery’: a fowl is best with a parsley sauce.”

American Cookery, by Amelia Simmons, 1796

 


 

OYSTER PYE

(1837, Maryland’s Way)

Flaky pastry sufficient to line a large pie pan and for top crust.

Line a large pie pan with pie [pastry]. Cut a pastry circle [to] form lid so that it will exactly fit over pie when baked. Bake separately on a cookie sheet. The crusts must be baked before the pie is filled as “the oysters will be too much done if they are cooked in the pye.”

Oyster filling:

1 quart oysters
1 small onion, chopped fine
1 stalk celery, scraped and chopped fine
2 tablespoons butter
2 tablespoons flour
1 cup oyster liquor
1 cup thin cream
1/2 teaspoon mace
A little nutmeg
Freshly ground pepper
A few drops hot sauce or a pinch of cayenne

 

Make a “body” in double boiler by cooking onion and celery in butter until soft, then stirring in flour and seasonings. Add oyster liquor and let “body” steep over hot water to blend seasoning. Gradually add cream, which must not be cooked too long as it may curdle. Add oysters to sauce about 5 minutes or so before serving and let them plump and heat through only until edges curl.

When pastry is baked, fill with oysters and sauce. Put on lid and send to the table.

— Courtesy of Eagle Tavern, Greenfield Village at The Henry Ford, Dearborn
 

Literary Feast

Along with history texts and antique cookbooks, dishes mentioned in literature offer inspiration for Thanksgiving meal planners. Some appetizing excerpts:

“The guests supplied the trimmings, each of them contributing her particular specialty: a cousin twice removed, Harriet Parker from Flomaton, made perfect ambrosia, transparent orange slices combined with freshly ground coconut; Harriet’s sister Alice usually arrived carrying a dish of whipped sweet potatoes and raisins; the Conklin tribe, Mr. and Mrs. Bill Conklin and their quartet of handsome daughters, always brought a delicious array of vegetables canned during the summer. My own favorite was a cold banana pudding — a guarded recipe of the ancient aunt who, despite her longevity, was still domestically energetic; to our sorrow she took the secret with her when she died in 1934, age one hundred and five (and it wasn’t age that lowered the curtain; she was attacked and trampled by a bull in a pasture).”

The Thanksgiving Visitor, Truman Capote (1967)

 

“Stuffy Pete was overcharged with the caloric produced by a super-bountiful dinner, beginning with oysters and ending with plum pudding, and including (it seemed to him) all the roast turkey and baked potatoes and chicken salad and squash pie and ice cream in the world.”

Two Thanksgiving Day Gentlemen, O. Henry

 

“Queenie [the dog], who had somehow got loose, was under the table — trembling and wagging with ecstasy as she skittered between the rows of legs — but nobody seemed to object, probably because they were hypnotized by the uncarved, lusciously glazed turkeys and the excellent aromas rising from dishes of okra and corn, onion fritters and hot mince pies.”

The Thanksgiving Visitor, Truman Capote (1967)

 

“The roasted turkey [sent] forth the rich odour of its savoury stuffing, and finely covered with the frost of the basting. At the foot of the board a “surloin” of beef, flanked on either side by a leg of pork and joint of mutton, seemed placed as a bastion to defend innumerable bowls of gravy and plates of vegetables disposed in that quarter. A goose and pair of ducklings occupied side stations on the table, the middle being graced, as it always is on such occasions, by that rich burgomaster of the provisions, called a chicken pie. This pie, which is wholly formed of the choicest parts of fowls, enriched and seasoned with a profusion of butter and pepper, and covered with an excellent puff paste, is, like the celebrated pumpkin pie, an indispensable part of a good and true Yankee Thanksgiving.”

Northwood: Life North and South, by Sarah Josepha Hale* (1827)

 

“A side table was literally loaded with the preparations for the second course … There was a huge plum pudding, custards, and pies of every name and description ever known in Yankee land; yet the pumpkin pie occupied the most distinguished niche. There were also several kinds of rich cake, and a variety of sweetmeats and fruits. On the sideboard was ranged a goodly number of decanters and bottles; the former filled with currant wine and the latter with excellent cider and ginger beer …”

Northwood: Life North and South, by Sarah Josepha Hale (1827)

 

“Plates of pickles, preserves, and butter, and all the necessaries … leaving hardly sufficient room for the plates of the company, a wine glass and two tumblers for each …”

Northwood: Life North and South, by Sarah Josepha Hale (1827)

 

*Hale, a writer and magazine editor, is widely credited with being responsible for making Thanksgiving a national holiday. She lobbied five U.S. presidents, an effort that finally succeeded with Abraham Lincoln.

 

 

JEANNE OWEN’S CORNBREAD

(Adapted from a James Beard recipe)

1 cup sifted all-purpose flour
3 cups cornmeal (yellow Anson Mills)
2 teaspoons kosher salt
1 fluid ounce sugar
6 teaspoons baking powder
6 eggs, well beaten
1 pint buttermilk
2/3 cup melted unsalted butter
Butter for greasing pan

 

Preheat oven to 350. Sift all dry ingredients together in a mixing bowl. Add eggs and milk and beat with a wooden spoon. Beat in melted butter. Pour into a well-buttered cake pan and bake at 350 for 15-18 minutes. Set aside to cool.

— Chef Alex Young, Zingerman’s Roadhouse, Ann Arbor

 


 

GREEN CORN PUDDING

(1876, Buckeye Cookery)

Cut from cob two dozen full ears of corn, pound well, add about 1 pint milk, 2 eggs, one-fourth cup flour, one-fourth cup butter, 1 tablespoon salt. Bake in a well-greased dish in a hot oven for 90 minutes.

— Courtesy of Eagle Tavern, Greenfield Village at The Henry Ford, Dearborn

 


 

THREE SISTERS SALAD*

(Serves 4-6)

*Corn, beans, and squash, staple crops in Native communities, came to be known as The Three Sisters.

 

APPLE CIDER VINAIGRETTE:

6 tablespoons apple-cider vinegar
1/4 cup honey
3/4 cup canola oil
Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste

 

Combine all ingredients in a small bowl and whisk to blend. Cover and refrigerate at least 1 hour and up to 10 days.

 

SALAD:

2 zucchini, halved lengthwise and seeded
2 yellow summer squash, halved lengthwise and seeded
2 ears corn, husked
1/4 cup canola oil
Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
2 cups cooked cranberry beans, drained (also known as Roman or borlotti, similar to pinto beans)
1 medium yellow tomato or 3/4 cup yellow cherry tomatoes, diced
2 plum (Roma) tomatoes or 3/4 cup cherry tomatoes, diced

 

Prepare a hot fire in a charcoal grill, or preheat a gas grill to high. Brush the zucchini, squash, and corn with oil. Season the vegetables on all sides with salt and pepper. Grill the zucchini and squash until crisp-tender and grill-marked on both sides, about 10 minutes. At the same time, grill the corn until lightly browned, turning to cook all sides, 4-5 minutes.

Transfer zucchini and squash to a cutting board and finely dice, then empty into a large bowl. Cut the kernels from the corn and add to the bowl, along with the beans and the yellow and red tomatoes. Add 1/4 cup vinaigrette and toss to coat. Season with salt and pepper and toss again. Serve at room temperature or cold.

The Mitsitam Café Cookbook, by Richard Hetzler (nmai.si.edu or amazon.com)

 


 

SWEET AND EASY CORN PUDDING

2 cups whole-kernel corn (1 16-ounce can, drained, or frozen corn, thawed)
1 tablespoon flour
3 tablespoons sugar
2 eggs
3/4 teaspoon salt
3/4 cup milk
1/2 stick butter

 

Place all ingredients in a blender and mix at high speed 10 seconds. Pour into a buttered baking dish and bake at 375 for 45 minutes, or until a knife comes out clean. To make enough for company, triple the corn and double everything else and bake 1 hour or more.

cooks.com

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