6 minute read

Christmas Traditions

Christmas Traditions ~ Food for the Heart

Text and photos by Jo Clark


There I sat, with my mouth full of Oyster Stew and tears rolling down my face. The power of food to transport you to another time and place at work! Only food can take you by the shoulders and turn you around to stare right into the face of your past. In Hallmark’s movie “The Christmas Doctor,” the main character says: “Every time I see Christmas pudding, I’m 6 years old again.” Food will do that to you!

Christmas Morning

Mama always served Oyster Stew for breakfast on Christmas morning. It was a Gregory tradition that started generations ago. Perhaps the tradition started with those near the coast, or maybe even my ancestors in England and Wales.

My Gregory ancestors came to Virginia from England, starting with my 9th great-grandfather Richard. He arrived in 1620 on the ship TEMPERANCE to serve as an indentured servant until his passage was repaid. His son Thomas, who arrived from London in 1635 on the GLOBE, had a similar agreement. As land opened to the west, the next generations moved from the eastern shore to the Mountain Valley, Leatherwood, and Callands area (now Henry and Pittsylvania Counties.) She Sells Oyster Shells Of all shellfish, oysters were the most popular—the ones consumed by all levels of society in early Great Britain and Europe—and America. This explains the already-established tradition English settlers had of eating oysters. Records say the size and quantity of oysters in Virginia waters astonished settlers. Due to their abundance and nearness to shore, oysters quickly became a staple of the colonists’ diet. A recipe from the time of the Revolution called for 200 fresh oysters. The supply was so unlimited they were pickled and exported to Barbados. As the Gregorys migrated to rural southwest Virginia, fresh oysters were harder to come by. This might explain the dish known as “mountain oysters,” perhaps so named out of sheer desperation! Oysters have played an important role in survival and society. Oyster shells recovered from middens (trash heaps) indicate that Native Americans ate oysters 9,000 years ago. Archaeologists found evidence of shellfish dinners from 164,000 years ago in a cave in South Africa. It’s nice to know I’m in good company with fellow oyster aficionados. Oyster season begins in the fall, heralded by those months ending with “R”. It was cold enough for delivery from the shore by December, some 190 miles away. Christmas was one of the rare times when deliveries were made across the state, transporting oysters from the Chesapeake Bay to the rolling foothills of Pittsylvania and Henry counties and beyond. How about it, my NRV peeps—any Christmas oysters in your heritage?

Cousins in the Kitchen

So many thoughts rushed through my head as I ate. I thought about how Mama, Mama’s Mama, and countless Mamas before them prepared this simple but wonderful soup using their own fresh milk and cream. I thought about how much my Daddy loved Mama’s stew. And I thought about how Darrel, always ready for a second bowl, was thoroughly indoctrinated into this family tradition, even though he never met my parents and was born in land-locked Kansas. He got to the South as quick as he could, bless his heart. Last year, for the first time, I prepared Oyster Stew for one. My parents have been gone many years, and Darrel nearly one. Somehow, I drew comfort from the knowledge that in kitchens across the miles, in Virginia, North Carolina, and even Alabama, cousins were making the same traditional Christmas morning feast. I hope they are sharing our history with new generations.

Another Memory

A male cousin on the Grant side told me his Christmas memory centered around coconut cakes. His contribution provided the muscle power to crack, peel and grate whole coconuts for his Mama’s recipe. The finished cakes were “put waaaaaaaay in the back bedroom to keep them cool (the wood stove was 2-3 rooms away.)” Ask your relatives what Christmas food traditions they had as children—what did they look forward to every year? Write down their answers and keep those traditions alive in your kitchen every year, repeating the story of how they began.

Jo Clark is a Virginian, born and bred…but ran to the coast like the incoming tide! The average New Yorker consumed 600 oysters a year in the 1800s, but today’s American eats only 3. So, she’s doing her part to even the odds and may be prying open oysters right now! Follow on her Facebook page, Have Glass, Will Travel or on Instagram she’s known as JoGoesEverywhere. And she sure tries.

Vivian Gregory Clark’s Oyster Stew

1 pint fresh oysters 4 Tbl. butter Salt, pepper, paprika 1 qt. rich milk (half & half, or sweet milk mixed with heavy cream) Lawry’s Seasoned Salt

Pour oysters into a strainer over a cup or bowl, catching the liquid (liquor as it is called). Gently palpate the oysters, feeling for pieces of shell, grit or (if you are lucky) a pearl. Put the cleaned oysters, strained oyster liquor, butter and seasoning in a saucepan and simmer gently until oysters begin to curl at the edges. At the same time, heat milk in a saucepan, being careful not to scorch it. Add the hot milk to the oysters and oyster liquor and serve at once. Top with a healthy sprinkle of Lawry’s Seasoned Salt and a handful of oyster crackers.

Merry Christmas!

Interesting Facts

• Oyster farming goes back to Roman times and has been the principal way oysters are harvested in France since 1860 • Eastern oyster’s scientific name comes from Virginia! (Crassostrea virginica) • Wild oysters in Chesapeake Bay have declined to less than 1% of historical numbers • One oyster can filter between 10-50 gallons of water a day • Virginia is the top East Coast state for oyster aquaculture • Nature Conservancy has restored more than 392 acres of native oyster reef in Virginia • Oyster shells are returned to estuaries for spat (baby oysters) to anchor to and develop into tasty morsels • There are eight regions in Virginia identified with different flavor oysters (like wine, oysters develop a distinct taste based upon where they grow) • There are 28 annual events in Virginia to celebrate – Oysters!