A Thanksgiving story… with bivalves

by Brian Clarey

I love oysters… but for Thanksgiving? (courtesy photo).

This Thanksgiving story starts with oysters, those succulent morsels of oceanic flesh, plump and tender, with delicate notes of the sea. I love oysters, but I had never associated them with the

Thanksgiving meal — even on Long Island, where I grew up and where oysters colonies once bedazzled every bay and inlet. It wasn’t until I spent my first Thanksgiving in New Orleans, a boozy affair at a fellow Loyola student’s parents’ house in Lake Pontchartrain’s finest south shore neighborhood, that I tasted what these beautiful bi- valves could do to a traditional Thanksgiving dish like stuffing. Sure Oyster stuffing — or, properly, oyster dressing — is a traditional Thanksgiving dish in many American homes, not all of them close to shore. But I had never tasted a dish like this, one that combined the subtle musk of the oyster with deep herb flavor and the texture of good French bread sodden with savory broth. And I never forgot it.

So when planning my Thanksgiving menu this year, I decided to give this dish a shot. At my house, come Thanksgiving time we invite every piece of family we have in the area and all the widows, orphans and stragglers we know into our home for food and fellowship, and load up the larder with raw ingredients. It took a couple stops to get what I needed for the dressing, a good loaf French bread and shucked oysters being the most difficult to obtain. I have no problem shucking oysters myself — for a time I did it professionally at a bar on Tchoupitoulas Street — but I was concerned about the time. I bought fresh — not canned — oysters in small buckets, and tasted a couple as I separated the meat from its liquor. Honestly, they kind of sucked — none of the mysterious flavors of the deep, and the liquor around them had congealed into something reminiscent of okra slime. But pre-shucked oysters are better than no oysters at all.

I based my recipe on Emeril Lagasse’s interpretation of the dish as op- posed to Paula Deen’s — hers relies on cornbread, saltines and an entire stick of butter, and I’m just not into that.

Emeril, on the other hand, takes a purist’s approach, starting with the holy trinity of Creole cooking: celery, onion and bell pepper, diced and sautéed until soft in olive oil, then constructing a broth from the oyster liquor — no chicken or vegetable base here. For the starchy element I cubed half a loaf of bakery French, soaked it in the broth and then mixed it with the oysters and vegetables, adding a generous element of Parme- san cheese and a ribbon of cayenne pepper. The whole thing baked off for an hour at 375 degrees. I was unhappy with the result — far too watery for proper dressing, which, I suppose, is better than if it was overly dry. But the aroma emanating from the pan was undeniably arousing, and its addition to the Thanksgiving table brought a handful of guests off the couch and to their feet.

There was nothing wrong with the taste, which combined a deep oys- ter flavor with generous dollops of the real thing interspersed throughout; the cayenne gave it a subtle heat that finished with strength.

And though this year’s oyster dressing did not quite live up to my expectations, it was the first dish on the table to be scraped clean. I’m already tweaking the recipe in my head for next year. I’m prob- ably going to have to use more bread, and if I’m really committing to the material, I’ll likely have to spend some time shucking oysters early Thanksgiving morning.