Oysters have long been a favorite holiday ingredient for Americans.
A hundred years ago deep in the Midwest, many people ordered a barrel of oysters at the beginning of December and worked on enjoying it all month, refrigerating it by simply sticking it outside in the snow. For Christmas dinner, there might be oyster stuffing in their turkey, oyster stew beside it and maybe even oyster sauce on top of it.
The most influential mid-19th century magazine, Godey's Lady's Book, once ran a sentimental story about a family that dealt with its financial problems by having a potluck Christmas dinner. Their benevolent Uncle Ellis promised, "And I will get as many first-rate oysters as you can eat, and Auntie must cook them, for there is no oyster soup like hers."
In the 1830's, an enterprising Baltimore merchant sent out "oyster expresses," wagons loaded with oysters that traveled all the way to Pittsburgh as fast as the roads of the time permitted. Originally shipped oysters were mostly pickled in vinegar, but soon there was an oyster-canning industry. And as transport improved, live oysters in the shell were sent farther and farther inland.
During the Gold Rush canned oysters couldn't satisfy California's shellfish hunger, so Washington oystermen started shipping their oysters to San Francisco in 1851. As a result, at one time there was more gold per capita in Oysterville, Washington than anyplace on the West Coast outside San Francisco.
Oysters were shipped by rail long before slaughtered beef was, and it was the railways that satisfied the Midwest's oyster mania.
The first oyster restaurant opened in New York in 1763, and within 50 years oyster houses and oyster bars had replaced traditional taverns and coffeehouses as centers of conviviality. In fact, it could be hard to tell the difference between a bar and an oyster house, because oyster houses sold beer and the usual "free lunch" at a bar was oysters.
Most of the oysters being eaten at these places, like most oysters throughout history, were raw, but Americans also had a strong taste for cooked oysters. In many parts of the country, political rallies were expected to feature oysters roasted in the shell.
Abraham Lincoln threw oyster roasts when he was running for office in the 1850s. Sometimes he shoveled the oysters off the grill himself. One of his favorite dishes, of course was Oyster Pie.
SERVES 12-16 - 2 HOURS, 20 MINUTES
For the Biscuits
- 3 cups (13 1⁄2 oz.) all-purpose flour, plus more for dusting
- 2 tsp. baking powder
- 1 1⁄2 tsp. kosher salt
- 1⁄4 tsp. baking soda
- 3 sticks chilled unsalted butter, cut into 1⁄2-inch cubes
- 1 1⁄4 cups buttermilk, chilled
- For the Oyster Filling
- 2 tbsp. olive oil
- 10 oz. smoked country ham, finely diced
- 2 stalks celery, finely chopped
- 2 bulbs fennel, finely chopped
- 1 large yellow onion, finely chopped
- Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
- 4 cloves garlic, finely chopped
- 1 cup (4 1⁄2 oz.) all-purpose flour
- 4 cups whole milk
- 2 bunches Swiss chard, or spinach leaves, stems removed, roughly chopped
- 7 oz. Shucked Taylor Oysters (2 dozen)
- 1⁄2 cup finely chopped chives
- 1⁄4 cup absinthe or Pernod
- 1 tbsp. finely chopped flat-leaf parsley
Make the biscuits:
- Whisk the flour with the baking powder, salt, and baking soda until evenly combined.
- Add the butter and, using your fingers, rub the butter with the flour until pea-size crumbles form. Add the buttermilk and stir until a dough forms.
- Scrape the dough onto a lightly floured work surface and knead until it forms a ball.
- Using a rolling pin, flatten the dough until 3⁄4 inch thick.
- Fold in thirds like a letter.
- Repeat rolling and folding twice more, and then flatten the dough until 1⁄2 inch thick.
- Using a 2 1⁄2-inch round cutter, cut out biscuits, rerolling scraps as needed, to get 20 total.
- Place the biscuits on a baking sheet and freeze until ready to use, up to 1 week.
Make the oyster filling:
- Heat the oven to 450°.
- In a large saucepan, heat the olive oil over medium-high.
- Add the ham and cook, stirring, until browned and crisp, 6 to 8 minutes.
- Stir in the celery, fennel, and onion.
- Season with salt and pepper and cook, stirring, until the vegetables soften, about 8 minutes.
- Add the garlic and cook for 1 minute.
- Sprinkle the flour over the vegetables.
- Cook, stirring constantly, until lightly toasted, about 2 minutes.
- Slowly pour the milk into the pan and stir until it comes to a boil.
- Add the Swiss chard, reduce the heat to medium.
- Cook, stirring, until the Swiss chard wilts down, about 8 minutes.
- Remove the pan from the heat and stir in the oysters, chives, absinthe, and parsley.
- Season with salt and pepper and divide the oyster filling between two 1 1⁄2-qt. oval baking dishes.
- Arrange the biscuits evenly over the filling in both dishes.
- Place the dishes on a foil-lined baking sheet.
- Bake the oyster pies until fillings bubble in center and biscuits are golden brown, about 1 hour.
- Transfer the pies to a rack and let cool for 10 minutes before serving.