I’ve been reading up on Christmas dinners for my next pioneer Seattle Christmas book (ah, lovely, lovely research). Most of the items reported on tables in the nineteenth century in England and America didn’t surprise me. Roast beef, goose, turkey, and ham were staples. Depending on who you were and where you were, you might have one or more of them for your Christmas dinner. But one item that appeared even some poor tables did surprise me.
Apparently oysters were quite the thing at Christmas. Those along the coasts bought them fresh. Those inland could sometimes buy them packaged in tins, at a hefty price. During the middle of the nineteenth century, they were transported by the gallon across country by stage and later train. Stories abound of hawkers on the corner in London crying “Oysters! Fresh oysters!”
Even my Seattle pioneers would have had the opportunity. You see, Puget Sound natives had harvested oysters for thousands of years before Europeans happened upon the scene. The small Olympia oyster was indigenous to the area. When the first Seattle settlers arrived at Alki Point, boats were already shipping out of the area, taking cargo of oysters to San Francisco. One estimate for 1851 puts the poundage at more than half a million, and the same amount was sent each year for the next ten years!
Oysters were served in a variety of ways, from scalloped to roasted, stewed, or fried. You might serve oyster sauce, oyster soup, oyster pie, or oyster patties. You might even stuff them in your turkey or goose.
So, never mind the roast head of boar or the plucked goose. If you want an authentic nineteenth century Christmas dinner, put some oysters on your table.