I wonder if my grandpa knew the things he'd be remembered by. He died before my brother and I got a chance to know him, but we've learned about him foremost through his food, along with the photos we have of him hoisting up a giant fish he'd caught, or mugging with the numbered birthday candles on his cake (silly Boppo, you're not 16, you're 61!).
Even if we don't know what it's like to talk to him or hug him, we know his drink order ("CC 7, tall, with a chunk of lime"), his genius contribution to my grandmother's biscuits and gravy (scrambled eggs!), and his very milky Christmas Eve tradition of serving eggnog and oyster stew.
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Stew is a funny name for it, since it's just whole milk, flavored with chopped fresh oysters, plus butter, pepper, and celery salt swirling across the top. It's a bit like an oyster pan roast or chowder, but barer in bones. There's no room to hide—so the better and fresher your oysters, the better it all will taste.
Or, at least, I assume so. This is a tradition I've only recently decided to participate in firsthand (firstmouth?). When my brother and I were small, we were scared of this old-fashioned soup being our only dinner (and my mom possibly realized that our other dinner guests would feel the same way).
She started making chicken chile as a safety—a bright, California-style spiced chicken soup, poured over a pile of tortilla chips and shredded cheddar cheese. When a family friend went vegetarian, a vat of minestrone took over one more burner on the stove, and everyone could help themselves to as many bowls as they liked, of whichever soups suited them.
As hallowed as the bowl of stew on its own might have been to the last generation, the casual soup party that's grown out of it has become sacred to me. And as complicated as my feelings might be now about cooking around picky eaters, this is the way I want to entertain, to go into a holiday that can come with a lot of rigamarole in a relaxed way, giving everyone the freedom to sample and personalize.
This year is my first as a unit of another family, so it's also the first Christmas Eve that I won't be there for the soup parade. But when my fiancé and I roll in late on Christmas Eve, I'll have a bowl of leftover oyster stew and think about my grandpa. Then I'll have one of chicken chile, too.
I'm an ex-economist, ex-Californian who moved to New York to work in food media in 2007. Dodgy career choices aside, I can't help but apply the rational tendencies of my former life to things like: recipe tweaking, digging up obscure facts about pizza, and deciding how many pastries to put in my purse for "later."