Since moving to the Mid-Atlantic region, I have often wondered why folks from West Virginia eat oysters this time of year, oysters not being native to the Appalachian Mountains. A former Baltimorean back home in West Virginia provides the history of this tradition, as well as her own personal family history. Her family served them at Christmas, but I've also met folks who included them with Thanksgiving and New year's dinner. It's so well-written that I'm just going to copy it verbatim from the email she sent me.
When I was a child growing up in the hills of West Virginia, we always headed up the hill to my Grandma's house for Christmas dinner. Along with the baked ham, cranberry sauce, and homegrown mashed potatoes and green beans was an unexpected dish in a green plaid ceramic bowl: fried oysters. It was a small bowl as only my father and grandmother ate them (my mother hated them and wouldn't let my brother or me try them), but it was always there, with the golden brown fried oysters. Grandma was not a seafood buff; indeed, the fried oysters were the only seafood that I ever saw her eat. But every Christmas, she ate the fried oysters.
Years later, my best friend (who grew up in the mountains two counties over) and I were in college, preparing for the holiday break and discussing traditions when she mentioned the oyster stuffing for her turkey. "Hey, we had oysters too. I always thought that was odd." "Oh, it's an old mountain tradition to have oysters at Christmas." And then she told me the story.
Way back when the hills were being settled, our ancestors were mostly subsistence farmers, but there were certain goods, like sugar and coffee, that could not be grown and needed "cash money" to acquire. So every year, one man from the area was chosen to take cash crops to Baltimore, MD, to the market. This man would leave after the first frost and walk to Baltimore. He would leave after the crops were in (and probably after the hog slaughter, held after the first hard frost to preserve the meat), and the neighbors would help his family with the stock and any necessary maintenance on the farm. He would leave about the first of November, walk to Baltimore, do the trading for the community, and head back on the trek over the mountains. In those days, it was preferable to travel in the winter, as the frozen dirt roads were easier to navigate than the mud of spring and fall. Plus, the cold kept the oysters from spoiling.
Yes, oysters. When the traveler arrived home, around Christmas, he brought the staples that he had traded for along with oysters for Christmas dinner. Thus began the mountain tradition of oysters at Christmas.
I make these every year at my parents' house (much to my mother's dismay, as she has a prejudice against oysters and doesn't even want them in the refrigerator with her other food). And the first year I lived in Baltimore, I stopped by the Broadway Market to get some fresh-shucked oysters to give to my best friend.
Oysters, either fresh-shucked or jarred
pepper (I sometimes substitute Old Bay seasoning for the salt and pepper)
White corn meal
Oil for frying (traditionally this would have been rendered bacon grease; I use vegetable oil)
(All measurements are approximate...no measuring cups needed. Also, you will be refreshing these as necessary.)
Mix about 1 cup flour in a small bowl with salt and pepper.
In a separate small bowl, mix a ratio of 1 egg to about 1/2 cup of milk. This is the egg wash.
In a separate small bowl, pour about a cup of corn meal.
Heat about 1/2 inch of oil in a large deep frying pan or deep fryer. One at a time, dredge oysters in the flour mixture. Dip in the egg wash. Then, coat with the cornmeal. Set aside, and repeat with remaining oysters. When any of the stations run out, refresh with additional flour mixture, egg wash, and cornmeal as needed.
When oil is hot (i.e., when sprinkled water jumps back out), add the prepared oysters. Cook for about 2-3 minutes per side till golden brown. Drain on paper towels.
Once you get started, you'll have a regular assembly line going, and you'll find that you are able to prepare the next batch for frying as the first batch is cooking. If the oil overheats and begins smoking, remove from heat for a few minutes and repeat.
If you have a favorite recipe that you would like to share, please email me at MarysFoodJournal@gmail.com and let me know how you would like to be identified (ie "a reader in Ellicott City" vs your actual name). Include any traditions or memories associated with the dish if you like.