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.


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