Oyster Stew

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(HOST) This week VPR commentators are serving up some “Very Vermont Food”. Today, commentator Tom Slayton reflects on an old Vermont tradition: Oyster Stew.

(SLAYTON) You wouldn’t think that Vermont, the only New England state with no coastline, would have a culinary tradition involving oysters. But as a matter of fact, it does.

I know, because for many years, it was a tradition in my family to have oyster stew for supper on Christmas Eve. And when I mentioned this tradition to other people who grew up in Vermont, I got instant affirmation: they often said that they, too, celebrated with oysters on Christmas or New Year’s, or some other special mid-winter occasion.

A little research at the Vermont Historical Society confirmed that oysters were an important tradition in Vermont throughout the 19th century and into the 20th. Now, of course, oysters are so expensive that they’ve become a special treat. But 100 years ago and more, they were plentiful and relatively cheap – and so oyster suppers were a regular social occasion throughout New England.

Also, for many years, oyster stew hikes were a tradition with the Green Mountain Club. My father, Ron Slayton, used to remember just such a hike that he and others from the Duxbury area took with Will Monroe, the retired professor who scouted and helped build some of the most scenic sections of the Long Trail. Monroe led a group to the old Montclair Glen Lodge on the south flank of Camel’s Hump and they packed in the milk, oysters and butter necessary for the oyster stew.

Since he was leader of the hike, Monroe presided over the stew. It was prepared on the woodstove that heated the tiny, rustic lodge. Wet socks and other sweaty clothing were hung from the rafters overhead. And, as you might guess, at a crucial moment, one of the socks slipped off a beam and fell directly into the steaming oyster stew! Monroe quickly looked around to see if any of the other hikers were watching. And, of course, they ALL were watching! But Will Monroe, equal to the occasion, reached into the stew with his spoon and snagged the offending woolen sock: “up-up-up-up-up!” he intoned, as he hoisted the dripping sock up and out and away.

Andrew Nuquist, current president of the Green Mountain Club, told me that oyster stew hikes were a regular activity of the club up until about the mid-1980s. They haven’t been held recently, but the club’s Montpelier Section is contemplating a revival of the tradition next year, when it celebrates its 50th anniversary.

Why oyster stew? Probably because it’s simple to make, and warming on a cold day. All you really need is oysters, milk, butter, salt and pepper, and you’re in business. “It satisfies both body and soul,” Nuquist said.

However, the club apparently had to guard against hikers who weren’t familiar with New England restraint – or New England frugality. Nuquist, the club president, recalled that oyster stew hike leaders often had to scoop up the soup themselves and ration out the oysters to the hungry hikers.

“Each person,” he noted, “got two.”

Tom Slayton is the editor of Vermont Life magazine. He spoke from our studio in Montpelier. This afternoon, Nils Daulaire tells of his annual tradition of making Norwegian Christmas Cake from a recipe handed down by his mother.

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