When I got married and officially joined my husband’s family, there were a few welcome dining traditions I inherited: crispy soft-shell crab sandwiches on soft white bread, cold gin martinis with very little vermouth and exactly three olives, and, every Thanksgiving like clockwork, plump oysters in dressing.
I’d always enjoyed oysters by the dozen at a raw bar or thrown into a creamy chowder, but I’d never had them as part of a holiday spread until I went to my in-laws’. I remember spending my first Thanksgiving with my then-boyfriend’s family and seeing the oyster dressing in a big spread on their dining room table. The room was loud, wine was flowing, and people grabbed plates and sat where they could. Football was on in the living room and people hung out on the back deck. This wasn’t a formal family dinner — this was a party. And the oyster dressing fit right into that vibe: just a slight upgrade in an otherwise unfussy dish, each bite of oyster a welcome pop of umami that added earthiness and brine to the buttery, herby dressing.
As I’d later learn, my mother-in-law heads to the seafood vendor at the Amish market every November to buy freshly shucked Chesapeake oysters in pint jars. (She ascribes to the idea that, despite the proliferation of oyster farms making bivalves something we can enjoy all year round, it’s best to enjoy them in months that have an “r.”)
The cooking process is fairly simple, made easier by smart prep techniques like softening the celery and onions in butter the day before. On the big day, she combines the vegetables from the refrigerator, chicken broth, a trifecta of herbs (thyme, sage, and parsley), white pepper, and stale cubes of whole-wheat bread. Stale bread absorbs more flavor, but she doesn’t toast it beforehand, as it will crisp up enough in the oven; she also suggests being sparing with the chicken broth because the oyster liquor — aka the liquid accompanying the oysters — will add additional moisture. Before they’re added into the dressing, the oysters get cut in half so they’re more palatable (“No one wants that big of a surprise,” she says). Bake the mixture for 30 to 45 minutes, leaving it in the oven long enough to crisp up the top to a nice, golden brown.
The dressing is best eaten still warm on Thanksgiving Day as a complement to the usual turkey, cranberry sauce, and mashed potatoes and gravy. Everyone in my family goes back for seconds. Even people who claim to not be fans of oysters love it in this form. The general complaints of slimy texture or worries about fitting an entire one in your mouth are eschewed by including it in an easy forkful of dressing. Plus, the oysters are cooked, so anyone who can’t do raw seafood is still able to get their oyster fix with this dish.
Not to mention this is a side that keeps on giving. In the days to come, people scoop out heapfuls of the dressing to put on Thanksgiving sandwiches. I remember Danny bringing the leftovers back to college, and all of our buddies thinking it was some fancy, Mid-Atlantic delicacy. But really it’s just smart prep, the right sourcing, and some oysters in a jar.
Dina Ávila is a photographer in Portland, Oregon.
Photo assistant: Eric Fortier