I tip two sticks of butter into Mamma’s old eight-quart stock pot and light a small flame underneath. I add fresh garlic and onion, then open the packed refrigerator and begin a careful excavation, looking for the oysters, eight ten-ounce jars huddled back in the coldest corner. One jar at a time I tip the plump, glistening gray forms with their slightly viscous liquor into the spreading puddle of butter in the bottom of the pot.
Mamma’s neat handwriting on the counter beside me says, Cook and stir over low heat just until edges curl. It’s always difficult for me to tell when that is. I think I remember Mamma leaning into a cone of yellow from an overhead stove light, peering into the pot, anxious, trying to discern curling in the delicate ruffles of the mantles. But it’s been so long it’s hard to remember. She has written above the line, Sprinkle oysters lightly w/flour after edges curl. The direction is penciled in, a later improvisation, not in the fine blue ballpoint ink that covers the rest of the page.
Mamma fiddled with recipes endlessly, sometimes fine-tuning, sometimes making global changes. The fruit salad recipe, the other staple of tonight’s Christmas Eve supper, has Try yogurt instead of sour cream? penciled in at the top of the page. A plus sign and question mark have been added by 1 cup chopped nuts. And at the bottom of the page is a list headed Additions:
- sliced banana
- strawberries sliced (or 16-oz. pkge frozen thawed)
- canned apricots cut up
- frozen red raspberries—use raspberry yogurt.
The strawberries have a big penciled asterisk, but it’s messy, so it must be mine.
The only alterations she has made to the oyster stew recipe are the note about the flour, and the words also onion & garlic powder, in a different shade of blue ink, by the salt and pepper. The oyster stew must have been for her as it is for me immune to significant tampering, the mystical heart of our Christmas Eve meal.
I peer into the pot, but not anxiously. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a clear change in the thin black edges, and it always tastes good. I stir for a few minutes, then sprinkle a small handful of flour over the bald gray heads like a blessing. I add eight cups of half-and-half and two cups of whole milk, filling the pot almost to the brim. A little salt, some freshly ground pepper. Stir. Lower the flame. You have to be careful, or you end up with fifty dollars’ worth of oyster-flavored chewing gum bobbing in a milky inland sea.
This evening will make the sixtieth consecutive Christmas Eve that I’ve, well, not eaten, exactly—partaken, perhaps—of oyster stew. I was born in March, 1959, but I had oyster stew in utero at thirty-one weeks gestational age—one molecule at a time, filtered through Mamma’s bloodstream and my placenta—the Christmas of 1958.
Well, maybe. Probably even. I don’t know for sure.
That would have been a hard Christmas for Mamma. Her own mother had died in September: a brain tumor. The two women had been very close. Maybe Mamma abandoned my grandmother’s ritual that year since it was just her and my father. Place is an important part of ritual, too, and her mother’s house sat empty, dark, and cold.
So maybe it isn’t really an even sixty. As with so much else about my life—everything, really—I don’t actually know. Like Goldilocks in a strange house, I try on alternate possibilities, looking for the one that feels right. But they all fit equally well. My husband thinks I’m indecisive, but to plant your feet you first need someplace solid to stand. When he’s unsure about the past, he just asks: his parents’ memories are still sharp at eighty-eight. And when they’re gone, there will still be three of his brothers left, probably, to consult. But I can’t even nail down many of the events of my own life. How am I supposed to decode the meaning? The oysters are the only clue I have here. And they’re not talking.
As far back as I can remember, I’ve loved oysters. I was four or five when my Grand-uncle Dick and -aunt Kate came to visit in New Orleans. My parents took them—and me—to Antoine’s, a Creole restaurant in the French Quarter, still family-owned, that had been in business twenty-one years when Confederate artillery opened fire on Fort Sumter. Mamma let me order for myself that night, and I asked for Oysters Rockefeller, the rich dish made from a carefully-guarded recipe created by Antoine Alciatore’s son Jules during an escargot shortage in 1899. Aunt Kate, a thin, sharp-tongued Midwesterner, looked at Mamma and said, “She’ll never eat that.” Mamma smiled. “We’ll see,” she said. And when dinner came I ate every bite.
I remember the oysters, but not the conversation. Mamma, though, told the story repeatedly, and always with great relish.
Randy and some of the kids are setting the table while I stir. White lace over a red tablecloth. Plates, napkins, champagne flutes. The Advent wreath with its now-brittle fir branches and, this evening, new red candles in place of the purple and pink of Advent.
In this moment all’s right with my world: all my children in one room, with animated conversation and frequent laughter. They’ve all made it home each year for Christmas Eve, but I know I’m living now on borrowed time.
When the stew is hot, I take orders in the general hubbub. Fill bowls. Pass them over the stove to reaching hands. Then, finally, we’re all at the table. We are twelve tonight in the fir woods of rural Southwest Washington, or thirteen: Peter, a freshman at the University of Washington in Seattle; Noah and Meghan from Spokane; Bill and Chantalle, who live off-post at Fort Riley, Kansas; Mary, just arrived from South Carolina; and Lucy and Dan and their kids—Elijah, just turned twelve, six-year-old Narah, and a tiny new someone in the dark, just barely begun. Randy at the far end of the table—blocking the front door, the table’s so long—and me at this end. Behind Randy I glimpse fingers of flame, and six of our mismatched stockings, hanging from the mantel he carved when we were young. Except the LORD build the house, it says, they labor in vain that build it. The Christmas tree sprouts from his left shoulder.
The four red tapers flicker, and, for the first time this year, the white pillar in the center, the Christ candle. The bowls are steaming, the filled flutes, pale gold. Two or three conversations meander slowly on. I only had five minutes to get to my connecting gate. . . . And someone spilled Skittles in the turret right before the engine imploded—I thought the crew might lynch him. . . . Elijah and Narah look alternately bewildered and annoyed by the dueling conversations. Eventually the last one dribbles to a close. We bow our heads.
We chose the opening line of Psalm 127 for the mantel partly because of Randy’s love of puns. House is bayit in Hebrew, and we did indeed build this house, laboring in the rain and ankle-deep mud, stacking the logs one by one, securing them with ten-inch spikes which we drove with a sledgehammer down through each new log into the one below.
But bayit refers primarily, not to a building but to the family that lives in it. And we have lived here. Lucy was five when we began stacking the logs that are these walls; Mary, six months old. I homeschooled Lucy in the mornings in our old travel trailer; we slept either there or on the floor of the garage. Once we got the walls up, I didn’t help with the roof—I built the porch instead, cutting and nailing it down with Mary on my back—because by then I was pregnant with Jonathan. I carried Bill in the front door the night he was born, a month after we got our certificate of occupancy. Noah and Peter were born in the bedroom to my left, their bedroom. The kids all learned to write at this table, to read on the couch in front of the fire. And we crammed forty friends in this room once, for Jonathan’s funeral.
The kids have been slow to warm up to oysters. Lucy ate nothing but fruit salad and French bread when she was little. After my parents died and I took over the meal preparation, I took pity on her and began making peanut soup, too. When she was twelve or thirteen, she began having stew sans oysters. It took her years to finally get an oyster down. Mary started out on peanut soup, moved to broth, and eventually deigned to down an oyster. But their love of tradition ultimately trumped their reservations about texture, and now they’re as devoted as I am. Well, Mary is, I think. She adores sushi, after all. Lucy may just eat out of love for me. I don’t really know this, either.
The boys all refused, when small, to eat either oyster stew or peanut soup. I was hard-nosed then about children eating what they were served, but even I could see that Christmas Eve wasn’t the place for a pitched battle. I was more tired than I had been with just one child, though, so no more homemade alternative: the second option became canned beef stew.
But tonight for the first time Bill joins Dan, beginning with a bowl of beef, then adding an oyster chaser. Peter, the baby, has never even tasted the oyster stew before. But he volunteered with the Free Burma Rangers this year, and eating roast dog, fur and teeth still attached, as he did in the jungle, hath wrought a wondrous change. Tonight he downs a bowl of beef stew, then polishes off not one but two bowls of oyster stew.
Elijah, twelve, a sushi lover like his Aunt Mary, generally goes for oysters. That just leaves Noah, Meghan, Chantalle, and six-year-old Narah as committed beef eaters.
I’ve always figured I had time on my side. Born with roughly thirty thousand taste buds, we’re down to about nine thousand by our early twenties. And by that time even brussels sprouts, or broccoli—roasted in olive oil with fresh garlic—can make your mouth water. How could they not like oysters?
Now, though, I realize time is working against me as well. At 58, I may have only another twenty Christmas Eves or so of being able to taste the stew—assuming, of course, that I live that long. My paternal grandfather could taste nothing by his mid-seventies: I heard Grandma whispering to my mother in the kitchen as we cleared the dishes before cake on my sixth or seventh birthday.
It occurred to me this year—is this a sign that my sense of taste is declining?—to put a little Tabasco in the stew. I didn’t though, any more than I would serve hamburgers and chips. It’s Mamma’s recipe.
Mamma was born on the outskirts of Kansas City in 1926—at home, I think—and grew up eating oyster stew and opening presents on Christmas Eve. After my folks died, it dawned on me that it was odd that desperately poor people—her father and her comfortable middle-class existence both died when Mamma was ten—persisted in eating what must have been, in landlocked Missouri during the Great Depression, incredibly expensive oysters.
The few times I’ve met someone else who eats oyster stew or opens gifts on Christmas Eve, they’ve been of German descent. So I’ve always assumed that our Christmas Eve gift-giving and stew-eating were because my maternal grandfather—Wilbert Miller, anglicized from Müller during the First World War—was German-American.
Modern Germans do keep Christmas Eve rather than Christmas Day as the focal point of their celebration: they open gifts, and eat a special meal. But the meal has traditionally centered on carp and potato salad, not oysters.
The gift-giving and fish-eating are both relics of Germany’s complicated religious history. Buddha was never a superstar in his native India, and Martin Luther wasn’t exactly an unqualified success in Germany. The region split, the north following Luther while the south remained Catholic. The presents are Luther’s doing. He advocated moving gift-giving from December 6th—St. Nicholas’s Day—to Christmas Eve, and changing the gift-giver from St. Nicholas to der Christkindl, the Christ Child, in order to minimize the saints and focus on the Incarnation.
But the carp is a product of the country’s Catholic past. Until John Paul II made changes in 1983, the Catholic Church required the faithful to fast or abstain from meat on Ash Wednesday, the Fridays and Saturdays of Lent, the Ember Days, and the Vigils of—that is, the nights before—Pentecost, the Feast of the Assumption, All Saints Day, and the Nativity, a.k.a. Christmas.
So seafood on Christmas Eve was, truly, catholic: general, universal, at least within Christendom. Poles, Czechs, Austrians, and other eastern Europeans joined Germans in eating carp; the Irish ate a milk-based stew made from dried, salted ling; Swedes ate pickled herring and salmon; Italians and Sicilians ate a variety of fish, often including eel, and the Portuguese ate cod.
But Christmas Eve got tricky when large numbers of Europeans began flooding into the United States in the nineteenth century. Waves of Germans, for example, arriving in the mid-to-late 1800s—my grandfather’s grandfather fled conscription into the Prussian army only to be drafted by the Union and wounded at Gettysburg—were shocked to discover that carp, prized in the Old World, didn’t exist in the New.
Fortunately for them, though, the Irish, arriving in prodigious numbers during the Potato Famine of 1845 to 1852, had already threaded that needle. Their beloved ling were not to be found in the coastal waters of the United States, but oh my! Oysters! Native Americans had been harvesting them for at least three thousand years, and early English immigrants in both Plimouth Plantation and Jamestown had quickly followed suit, putting them in stuffing and chowders, and eating them on the half shell.
A big part of the attraction was the price. Oysters, like lobster, were incredibly plentiful and incredibly cheap, and a huge source of protein for people who couldn’t afford meat. And there was the oyster’s long history as a purported aphrodisiac. Aphrodite, from whose name we get the word, sprang fully formed from the sea on the shell of a bivalve according to one version of her origin myth, either a scallop or an oyster. And Casanova famously consumed fifty oysters each morning to increase his sexual stamina.
So Irish-American cooks had lost no time in replacing the ling in their Christmas Eve stew with oysters. And newly-arrived Germans, finding themselves bereft of their beloved carp, seem to have simply adopted the menu from Irish enclaves a few blocks away.
The German influx of the later nineteenth century ended up primarily in the Midwest, primarily on farms. My Müller grandfather grew up in or near Carthage, Missouri, and his family, Mamma said, were Dunkards, rural German Baptists with hipster beards, Mennonite ways, and a practice of immersing three times forward instead of once aft. My Schultz grandfather was born in Horace, Greeley County, Kansas in 1891 or ’92: nobody, including him, knew for sure. But being landlocked in the Midwest, it turns out, was no barrier to eating oysters.
In 1880, 700 million oysters were harvested from Hudson’s Bay alone. Oysters were so popular by then that they were being shipped by rail across the continent—canned, dried, pickled, and even fresh, packed in barrels full of straw and ice. My Schultz great-grandfather, Gus, an engineer with the Missouri Pacific Railroad, would have been part of that great commercial oyster orgy. Oysters were so common in the Midwest that families in sod huts and little white frame farmhouses often had a set of oyster-serving utensils.
Laura Ingalls Wilder tells the story of her father, who insisted on going to town between blizzards on the twenty-first of December in about 1875. Ma tries to warn him off, but Pa is out of tobacco and longing for some male companionship. Three hours later, the worst blizzard of the season blows in. Pa tries to outrun it but eventually falls into a pit, which is quickly sealed shut by the blizzard. He spends three days in this snow cave.
First, he eats the oyster crackers he was bringing home for Christmas; later, the children’s Christmas candy. Finally, the storm lets up. Pa scrambles out of the pit and hoofs it home. After a cup of hot bean broth by the fire, he takes something out of his coat pocket: a small, flat, square tin can. “‘Oysters!’ said Pa. ‘Nice, fresh oysters! They were frozen solid when I got them, and they are frozen solid yet. Better put them in the lean-to, Caroline, so they will stay that way till tomorrow.’” And tomorrow, of course, will be Christmas.
I told Lucy this story a few days ago, both of us leaning against counters in her kitchen. He ate the stuff that had no nutritional value, I said. Even the children’s Christmas candy. But although he was fighting to stay alive, he didn’t eat the one nutrient-dense thing he had with him. We stared off into space, imagining the snow cave, the blizzard. What a big deal oysters for Christmas must have been to Ma, Lucy said softly.
According to a note in my handwriting I fixed oyster stew for the first time forty years ago tonight. I don’t remember that. Mamma’s rheumatoid arthritis must have been especially bad that year. Or her depression. I wouldn’t start fixing it in earnest for another eight years. By then, she and Daddy would both be dead, and Randy and I would be living in their house. Lucy would be at the card table with us in front of the fireplace, where Mamma’s hospital bed had been a few months before. And Mary would be there too, under my ribs, slurping up molecular stew through her umbilical cord.
What I remember, even after we were married, is Mamma: at the stove, big spoon in hand, wearing an apron because she was dressed for the Christmas Eve service later. I saw her there twenty times or more, but I wasn’t really paying attention. And now I’ve been fixing it for twice that long.
“Cooking is a language,” wrote Claude Lévi-Strauss, “through which society unconsciously reveals its structure.” Just as there is no human society without spoken language, so there is no human society, Lévi-Strauss observed, which does not process some of its food by cooking.
Boiled food has traditionally been associated with the intimate, family sphere—stew, for example, served at the family table—a humble food, and thus the particular province of women. Roasted food has been identified with public celebrations—the Fourth of July barbecue, say—and so has been a prestige food, and associated with men. This binary, Lévi-Strauss claimed, is common to virtually all cultures.
Boiling has status, he argued, only in more democratic societies. Roasting involves loss of some of the juices and even of the food itself—think charred exteriors of meat—and so is more prodigal, and thus more aristocratic. Boiling saves all the food and juices, and so is more economical, and thus more plebeian.
By this line of reasoning, stew is our family food. I grew up in a family that patched clothes and darned socks. Use it up, wear it out, make it do, or do without. We still slice the mold off cheese, scrape burnt toast, and carefully save the smallest bit of leftovers. Superglue is our go-to for shoes, dishes—almost everything, really—and I held my last pair of glasses together with a bent paper clip for months.
But why cook the oysters at all? Raw they’re a delicacy; cooked they’re easy to ruin. Harvard anthropologist Richard Wrangham argues that it was, not tools or language, but cooking that made us human. Wrangham argues that cooking allowed us to grow bigger brains and smaller guts than other primates our size by giving us a diet both more energy-dense and requiring less energy to digest.
Lévi-Strauss argued that we cook primarily as a way of telling ourselves that we’re different from animals. In this view, the cook, even the lowly stirrer of the stew, becomes, like the priest who lifts bread and cup while the bell tinkles, the all-important transformer of raw food, bringing it across the mystic boundary between nature and human culture.
The cook transforms the food, and then, like the bread and cup, the food transforms us. Physically, it becomes us. But so, on a psychic level, does the experience of the meal. Our physical survival as living organisms depends on the nutrients in the food; our psychological survival—as human beings—depends on our finding some sort of transcendent meaning in the raw materials of our lives. And we find that around the table as we create and strengthen bonds of relationship, and interpret the events of our days.
Or we used to. Twenty years ago our family was the only one in my daughters’ rural 4-H club that still routinely ate supper together. What does it mean that all forms of family cooking are on the decrease except grilling? That the giving of life on any level other than the biological has become optional weekend recreation?
We pass the fruit salad, the French bread, the conversation. Politics and the judiciary, usually a staple of discussion at this table whenever Noah is home, are strangely absent tonight. But this is Meghan’s first time here on Christmas Eve—they got engaged not quite two weeks ago—and perhaps he is on his best behavior. So we learn from Bill that hippos are the second biggest killer in Africa, after mosquitoes. My image of them is from still photos, or zoos—almost the same thing, apparently. It turns out they’re fast, athletic, and very territorial. They will chase and flip speed boats, Bill says, galloping along a river bottom at twenty miles an hour.
People pop up by ones and twos, go to the stove, refill their bowls. Elijah and Narah ask for seconds on their sparkling cider, then thirds. Chairs start scraping back—all the adults are done now—and we discuss a recent spate of cougar sightings, one in a field not half a mile from the little market in town. Then, a perennial chestnut, whether local coyotes have crossbred with wolves. It seems to be a nature sort of night.
When the kids were young, it was Randy and I who prolonged the after-supper conversation, who insisted on making tea and enjoying a glass of eggnog while the kids agitated to open presents. Now I realize with a start of mingled pain and pleasure that it is the kids who are making this magic circle last.
I get up, and am surprised to find the enormous stock pot almost empty. My old German tradition is quintessentially American, bound up with the life of this continent for at least three thousand years—and, after a couple of shaky decades, a hit, it turns out, in my own family. For now. I ladle the last of the oyster stew into my bowl.
I never had time to think as I made the stew when the kids were growing up. I never had much time to think at all. But I remember now, faintly, a feeling more than a memory, Mamma’s surprise at my attachment to oyster stew on, though we didn’t know it, one of our last Christmas Eves. I wonder if it wasn’t for her just a quick and easy meal before all the work of Christmas Day. She had more living relatives than she could keep up with: a raft of aunts when I was little, and cousins, a sister twenty years her senior who would outlive her by decades. She had no need to make the oyster stew an icon for all the ghosts. It was just a habit, like fixing tea or feeding the cats.
And it occurs to me, as I scoop the last oyster out of the pot, that she added more than onion and garlic and flour. She grew up, I’m sure, with canned oysters. But, foodie that she was—or became, once Julia Child started cooking on national TV—she not only sprinkled flour on the oysters, either when their edges curled or she got tired of waiting, she also made the switch, probably when we moved to Seattle, from canned oysters to fresh. For her it was another recipe to fiddle with. It was I who made it a sacrament. Or perhaps all meals are sacraments—so say the Quakers—and I stumbled on the hidden life in this one.
Randy scoots back his chair, hiding most of the tree—the angel on top is perched on his head now—and giving me a fine view of the fire and the mantel, and all those ragtag stockings. Except the LORD build the house. Bayit, a pun: house, family, either/or, both/and.
But this is what I love about bayit: it seems to me that the word most often carries the nuance, not simply of a nuclear family, or even of what we think of as an extended family, but of a family in the river of time. All the long-gone aunts and uncles and cousins who inhabited my early Christmases. My sister. My grandparents. Mamma and Daddy. All these people I love at this table in this moment. (“Now is now,” thought Laura. “It can never be a long time ago.”) The ones who couldn’t stay: Jonathan, and John David, who should be between Elijah and Narah. The ones yet to join us. The ones I will never know. The oysters of Christmases past are part of me now, and so are the people, and I am part of them, and Time like an ever-rolling stream bears all her sons away. But tonight we are surrounded, perhaps, by a cloud of witnesses.
I rejoin the circle of conversation and golden glasses and flickering flame, pop half a plump oyster in my mouth. Elijah and Narah wouldn’t like Tabasco sauce, but next year I think I’ll try just a little nutmeg. And maybe a pinch of mace.