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Tasting Ancestry

(by Peggy Lampman)

Can you touch, smell, hear, or––better yet––taste your family lineage? Well, sure you can.

Maybe it’s the scent of citrus, freshly zested, pulling you back into your mother’s kitchen as she prepares her special lemony holiday cookies. Or the crackle, snap, and hiss of floured chicken when submerged into sizzling fat that conjures up a beloved.

All it takes is the memory (and, if you’re lucky––a raggle-taggle family recipe––the more grease-stained the better) followed by three clicks of your ruby reds, and great grandma Nanny is cooking by your side.

Treasured recollections of my childhood are ushered in by my late grandmother, Mary Ellen Allen, as she tastes, stirs and serves our traditional Christmas breakfast: oyster stew. It was a recipe she learned from her grandmother, whose time on this planet pre-dates the Civil War, and, prior to that, our Scots-Irish ancestry. A passion for this bivalve is embedded into my family’s DNA. For generations, we Russell girls have been serving up a pot of oyster stew and inviting familial spirits, in the shape of our stories, to share the love as we savor bowls of this decadent briny brew.

(Mama Ann Allen Stewart and Grandma Mary Ellen Russell Allen)

As the late, great M.F.K. Fischer wrote in her book Consider the Oyster, “Often the place and the time help make a certain food what it becomes, even more than the food itself.” Indeed. To skip the tradition of oyster stew on Christmas morning, for me, is heresy.

So, what was I to think when my daughter told me that this year she, her husband, and their firstborn would be celebrating Christmas with his side of the family? Lovely people, most assuredly, but folks that shudder, lips puckering, around that most sacred of words: oyster.

Is my daughter telling me I can’t deliver first rites to my first grandchild with her first taste of oyster stew? Does this mean that while passing around our family’s talisman––the yellowed paper in my grandmother’s hand, penning this most sacred of recipes–– the baby won’t hear my stories? Never mind she only understands two words to date. How am I to come to grips with the fact that her first Christmas will be spent amongst a group of oyster infidels celebrating their own (alien) traditions with holiday breakfast breads and cocoa? Small consolation that next year will be my turn.

Time to rethink and reboot my interpretation of tradition, no matter that I’ve got a few (thousand) personal issues to address first. Am I being just a wee bit selfish to assume that my side of the family lays claim to December 25th family rites every year? Worse, maybe I’m outright paranoid knowing my granddaughter’s ten-month-old palate will undoubtedly prefer the taste of her other grandmother’s cinnamon and sugar to my heavy hand with the Worcestershire sauce and Tabasco.

For me to survive this dissent, a codicil to our holiday tradition is clearly in order. What is tradition, after all? For this writer, tradition is a path for handing down memories that offer context for gratitude and reflection. Subject to interpretation, it’s something a family can embrace, nurture, and call its own.

Tradition is a lovely thing, but it shouldn’t wear handcuffs. So why get my knickers in a knot? On alternating years, our oyster stew ritual can be honored whenever convenient to complex schedules. February or October—who cares?

The ancestors are smiling.


Peggy Lampman, from Ann Arbor, Michigan, is a novelist, photographer, and food blogger at Dinner Feed. She is the author of The Welcome Home Diner and The Promise Kitchen. Her family still lives in her hometown of Birmingham, Alabama.

Oyster Stew

1 lb. (1 1/2 - 2 c.) small to medium-sized shucked oysters with their liquor

1 stick (1/4 lb.) unsalted butter

6 green onions, white and light green parts only, sliced into thin rounds

2 T. flour

2 c. milk

2 c. half-and-half

Tabasco Sauce

Worcestershire sauce

Drain the oysters with a fine mesh strainer, reserving their liquor.

In a large pan over medium-low heat, melt the butter.

Add the chopped scallions and sauté until limp, about 5 minutes.

Make a roux by stirring and whisking the flour into the butter.

Let the roux cook, while stirring, about 5 minutes.

Reduce heat to a very slow simmer, and add the milk, half-and-half and oyster liquor.

Do not let the broth boil or it will break.*

Let simmer 45 minutes to 1 hour, stirring and whisking often. (This is very important as your stew could break if not attended to.)

Season to taste with Worcestershire, Tabasco, and kosher salt.

Add oysters to the stew, and when the edges begin to curl (3 - 8 minutes, depending on the size of the oyster), remove from heat and serve.

Serves 4.

*I use a rack above the flame of my stove to insure the lowest simmer possible. You may prefer cooking your stew in a double boiler to insure the heat is kept at a minimum.

Note: Oyster stew is delicious paired with a fried sausage patty stuffed into a freshly baked biscuit.


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