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Hey! What Are These Oysters Doing in My Stuffing?

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Stuffing is an arena where you rarely try something new, so attached is everyone at your holiday table to the stuffing they know and love.

Maybe it's the one with the cornbread and sausage, or stale challah bread and sage, or oysters or chestnuts, two old-fashioned players so rarely seen elsewhere that we have to wonder how they found their way into stuffing, and how they stayed there.

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Photo by Mark Weinberg

Of course, "culinary history isn't a science," says Jan Longone, the Adjunct Curator of American Culinary History at the University of Michigan's special collections library. "There are as many recipes and opinions as there are people eating."

But there are two likely possibilities for the advent of oyster stuffing, and seemingly opposing ones: At the beginning of the 20th century, the American Northeast was absolutely teeming with oysters. The rich ate them, the poor ate them, the corner bar of the time was an oyster stand; there were so many oysters being consumed that that some streets (like New York City's aptly-named Pearl Street) were literally paved with their shells. "They were there," Jan says. Adding oysters to anything—stuffing, for example—would have been a "why not!" move.

Hello in there!
Hello in there! Photo by Alpha Smoot

Secondly, oysters maintained a sort of opulence despite their ubiquity in the Northeast—and this was more true than anywhere else in the landlocked middle of the country. In the mid-19th century, refrigerated train cars made transporting fresh oysters from the coasts to America's center possible (and, says Jan, revolutionized the way we eat), but it wasn't cheap. A big occasion like Thanksgiving would have merited spending the money to get the oysters to the holiday table. (Perhaps separately, Jan says that banquets in history books are often depicted as having oysters even as far back as early Roman times. It's unclear if this is due to oysters' availability—good for feeding a crowd—or their fancy-pantsness.)

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As industry increased in New York at the beginning of the 20th century, the waters that were once filled with oysters became polluted; due to pollution and overfishing, oyster cultivation decreased quickly and immensely, and New York's last commercial oyster bed was shut down in 1927, said Maryann Tebben, the head of the Center for Food Studies at Bard College at Simon's Rock, citing a New York Public Library article on New York's oyster-filled history. Fewer oysters meant that they were suddenly more expensive, no longer an easy stuffing add-in. This is likely one reason oyster stuffing began to decline in popularity.

Julia Child's Brussels Sprouts with Braised Chestnuts
Julia Child's Brussels Sprouts with Braised Chestnuts Photo by Bobbi Lin

As for adding chestnuts to stuffing, while the nuts were once as ubiquitous as oysters in America, both Jan and Maryann cited a massive blight that, in 1904, decimated America's native chestnut tree population. (Though, as Maryann says, "If you've ever tried to shell and peel whole chestnuts, you may understand why people stopped doing it!")

And while prepackaged, jarred chestnuts began to appear—"Around turn of the century, there was a big push toward jarred and canned goods when there was a wave of interest in 'food safety,'" Maryann says—"cooks probably decided [even using jarred chestnuts] wasn't worth the trouble."

And all this "right at the same moment that oysters were declining. Bad days for stuffing," Maryann told me. "Once these ingredients fell out of favor for environmental reasons, other items replaced them and it's hard for them to regain their foothold" in the wake of new taste preferences. But for many families, Thanksgiving wouldn't be Thanksgiving without oyster or chestnut stuffing. As inpatskitchen writes in the headnote for her Oyster and Spinach Dressing,

We've been hosting Thanksgiving dinner for almost 40 years, and as I look back, I've noticed how our menu has changed and evolved... Mom always brought scalloped oysters, but then as the guest list changed, this was omitted... Stuffing back then was placed in the bird. Now, since we fry the bird, the dressing is usually a simple bread, mushroom, and celery one so that the little ones can enjoy. But even back in the day, I always made an extra batch of stuffing with oysters and still do. This one will be on the table this year...

Did you grow up eating oyster or chestnut stuffing on Thanksgiving? Are you still fiercely loyal to one of them? Tell us in the comments!


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Tags: thanksgiving, stuffing, oyster stuffing, chestnut stuffing