Early Americans were absolutely oyster crazy. When the first English settlers arrived at Plymouth Rock, oysters were a reliable and tasty source of nutrition. Native Americans had already been harvesting them for at least 3,000 years. As the young colony’s population grew and spread to cover much of the East Coast, folks along the shores devoured oysters. In stuffings, chowders, pan roasts and on the half shell, both rich and poor enjoyed as many oysters as they could eat. America’s oldest still operating restaurant, the Union Oyster House of Boston, opened in 1826 to showcase the bivalve. And New York City pushcarts sold the by the bushel, freshly harvested from the Hudson Bay. A whopping 700 million were harvested from the Bay in 1880 alone.
This oyster bonanza coincided with the mass immigration of Irish settlers to the United States. Even before the potato famine of 1840, Irish had ventured to America for better lives and a fresh start in a new land. Of course, the vast majority of these Irish were Catholic. They followed religious dietary customs around holidays, one of which was to abstain from eating meat on Christmas Eve. Fish was the protein of choice instead. Back home in Ireland, the Christmas Eve meal revolved around a fish called the ling. Cooks made a simple stew from dried ling, milk, butter and pepper. The ling was heavily salted for preservation, as well as chewy from being dried for so long. Milk tenderized the fish, and mixed with the butter and salt to create a rich, delicious broth.
Irish cooks could find no dried ling in America, but they did find plenty of oysters. And, as it happens, oysters taste pretty similar to dried ling: they’re salty, briny and can be quite chewy. The ling stew recipe was quickly adapted for oysters. And the cook in charge of the dinner didn’t even have to live near the ocean, either. Oysters were so popular throughout the country that canned, pickled and yes, even dried oysters had made their way across the continent en masse by the 1860s. Perhaps this year it’s time to revisit the oyster stew, and see what made this simple, satisfying dish so popular for so many Irish-American families.