On Christmas Eve, households across the Southeast U.S. will be serving up oyster stew (many New England households serve it up for Thanksgiving). This dish used to be so common that oyster crackers likely get their name because such crackers are often served with oyster stew. This stew has its roots in Indigenous dietary preferences, Catholic customs that Irish immigrants brought to the U.S., and 19th century mailing conventions.
When English settlers arrived on eastern U.S. shores, they encountered shell mounds created by Indigenous peoples that had been consuming native oysters for thousands of years (Native peoples in the Pacific Northwest also consumed oysters for food). Many of the early deeds and treaties that colonists made with Native peoples included provisions ensuring access to oyster beds in the Natives’ fishing grounds.
While it’s not clear how many of the colonizers’ oyster-related culinary decisions were derived from the Indigenous people whose lands they occupied, the settlers certainly learned to indulge in the shellfish themselves. Consumed by all socioeconomic classes, oysters were seen as a versatile ingredient that could be eaten raw or integrated into roasts. In fact, they were so ubiquitous and popular across the Eastern seaboard that 700 million oysters were harvested in 1880 alone.
However, transporting oysters inland and to Southern states was challenging because seafood could not be easily refrigerated in the 1800s. Thus, oysters were most widely available in winter months (starting in December), when the weather was cool enough to prevent seafood from spoiling while traveling. Enveloped in seaweed and wet straw, oysters could be transported for up to two weeks without decaying. This seasonal window meant that oysters gradually became associated with Christmas.