Monday, November 23, 2009

Thanksgiving on the Chesapeake Bay

I thought that I would take a page from my good friend Microdot’s site and post a recipe that is somewhat of a tradition here on the Eastern Shore of Maryland. My Grandfather was a local waterman and those whom made there living from the water had recipes that are served as a tradition for Thanksgiving. I would also ask all to reply to this posting with their favorite recipes that has a special meaning for them at Thanksgiving.

I can still remember him performing his balancing dance just standing on the 8” wide washboard of his 40’ workboat, handling the 30’ oyster tongs, lowering them into the water, blindly gathering into a pile the oyster shells from the oyster beds, then hand over hand pulling the tongs back up and opening the rakes dumping the oysters onto the deck, and then repeating the process over and over again. To impress how hard this type of work is, think of it as vertically lifting 30 to 50 pounds of rocks 30’ over and over all day. Now oysters can only be harvested in the months with an "R" in it so should you loose your balance, you are falling into icy cold water and many passed away from hypothermia. When he had a good size pile of oysters, he would go through the pile throwing the oysters that were too small, dead, empty shells, etc. When back onto shore you would then take the baskets of oysters to the shucking house or shuck them yourself and put the oysters into mason jars to sell.

This oyster dressing is one of my favorite to serve at Thanksgiving. Growing up between the Chesapeake Bay and the Atlantic Ocean, this oyster dressing was a tradition in every waterman’s Thanksgiving feast. The haunting smell of this dressing as it comes out of the oven still brings back warm memories of the days when the main employment for the men of this area was to work on the water for their lively hood. “The skipjacks were made of wood and the men were made of steel.”

Baked Oyster Dressing

2 teaspoons unsalted butter
1 pint shucked oysters and their liquor
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 cup chopped celery
1 1/2 teaspoons salt
1/2 teaspoon black pepper
3 bay leaves
1/4 cup finely chopped parsley
1/4 cup all-purpose flour
1 cup half-and-half cream
1/4 cup chopped green onions
4 cups homemade-style white bread torn into 1-inch size pieces
1/3 cup freshly grated Parmesan

Cooking Instructions:
Preheat oven to 375° F. Butter a 9 by 11-inch baking pan with the butter and set aside.
Drain the oysters, reserving the oyster liquor. Set aside.
Heat the olive oil in a skillet over medium-high heat. Add the celery, salt, pepper and sauté for 5 minutes, or until soft. Add the bay leaves, parsley, and sauté for 1 minute. Gradually add cream; slowly stir in flour until smooth and cook for 2 to 3 minutes, stirring constantly. Add the green onions, oyster liquor stirring to mix well, and remove from the heat.
In a large mixing bowl, combine the bread and vegetable mixture with the oysters and Parmesan cheese. Stir to mix thoroughly. Pour the mixture into the prepared baking pan and top with more Parmesan. Bake for about 1 hour, or until bubbly and golden brown.
Remove the bay leaves before serving.


  1. Sounds great to me! I always wanted to sample oyster dressing and this is the first time I have read a recipe as authentic as this.
    When I was young, I worked for a few years in restaurants and learned to shuck oysters, but I never actually ate a raw one.
    I learned to make and appreciate oyster stew, but it wasn't until I moved to France that I ate a raw oyster.
    One Christmas Eve, I was invited to a taditional family gathering in the little village of Ajat where i lived for a few years.
    At the time, my French was very "amusing" and I was lost in a sea of syntax and mispronounciation. It was a Revillion, everyone sat up until midnight and then went to the local church for midnight mass...usually the only time each year most of the men went inside a church.
    The custom was to eat and drink and exchange gifts. The women were all in the living room and the men were all sitting around the dining table and taking turns shucking raw oysters, which came to the table on a huge platter to be consumed with buttered rye bread and white wine.
    I realized that I had to do it. The pressure was, I ate my first oyster...curious, I ate another...more than curious, I enjoyed it.
    Soon, I had consumed a plateful and drank a few glasses of wine. I loved oysters!
    My companions kept shucking them and urging me to eat more and I obliged. I don't know how many I ate, but I enjoyed them...
    The next day, Christmas, I ran into Didier, one of my oyster buddies and he asked me how I felt.
    I told him I felt fine and he laughed and then told me that the guys were trying to see how many oysters they could get me to eat because they were hoping for a repeat performance of the event that had occurred the year before when Didiers uncle, Andre ate 22 oysters smiling, then suddenly seemed to turn green and projectile vomited as he ran towards the door.
    Andre hadn't eaten oysters with us the night before, I noted.

  2. I personally don't care for oysters, but the rest of the dressing seems swell! I'm curious about the Parmesan cheese, though. I've never had dressing with cheese, but perhaps I ought to some day.

    Rather than the cheese and oysters, I prefer currents. A bit of sweetness helps the flavor of the bird, I think.

    Thanks for this post, especially as it has nothing to do with politics!

  3. Ya know.. you could ship 5 lbs of oysters to NH via Fed Ex for under $8.00.