While comparing notes with my second cousins who live in Nebraska — where our great-great-grandparents William and Anna Stephens homesteaded in 1872 — it occurred to me to ask if they’d ever had the Corn and Oyster Casserole that I grew up eating during the holidays. Turns out they had! We compared recipes and they were quite similar, despite the fact that our families had been separated by the time and distance of two generations. Our grandfathers, Acey and Clayton Jr., were brothers but did not seem to remain close after childhood, and my cousins and I didn’t find each other until a few years ago.
Upon further speculation, we’ve realized our Corn and Oysters tradition could even have come down through the generations from colonial America. We know our Stephens ancestors go back to at least the mid-1700s in the New York (and possibly Connecticut) area, and our Randall line goes back to the mid-1600s in Rhode Island. We’ve all heard the story about Native Americans teaching the cold, hungry pilgrims to fish and grow corn. The combination of corn and oysters sure sounds like a classic American Thanksgiving tradition, doesn’t it?
Cousin Shirley found this from the Union Oyster House:
Oysters were first served to the public in this country in 1763 when a primitive saloon was opened in New York City in a Broad Street cellar.
In the 19th century, the American people were enveloped in an oyster craze. In every town there were oyster parlors, oyster cellars, oyster saloons, oyster bars, oyster houses, oyster stalls and oyster lunchrooms. The oyster houses were very popular amongst the best class of people in the city. They were also popular amongst tourists because they knew they would get the choicest seafood, cooked and served in the best style. And with the “express” service and the coming of railroads, oyster houses became popular inland as well.
Corn and Oyster Casserole was always served at my grandparents’ and parents’ table for Thanksgiving and Christmas. My mother wrote down the recipe for me in 1985 and I’ve fixed it on many occasions, often bringing it as my potluck contribution to holiday meals. I always liked to speculate that 19th century Nebraskans had oysters shipped to them by train during the holidays, much like Laura Ingalls’ Christmas oranges. Sure enough, Shirley writes: “In Nebraska, I know oysters have been shipped to grocery stores in small pails at Christmas time since well before 1900.”
Besides corn and oysters, Saltine crackers are the third essential ingredient in our casserole. I’d guess they were an easy substitution for stale bread or bread crumbs. Here’s Wikipedia:
Soda crackers, also called “premium flake” and “saltina” crackers, date back at least to the 19th century. Premium Saltines, originally called Premium Soda Crackers, originated in 1876 in St. Joseph, Missouri.
A quick web search reveals no shortage of recipe variations for Corn and Oysters. It’s clearly a traditional holiday favorite for many families. Without further ado, here are two of our family’s versions.
Mine, as written by my mother:
Corn & Oysters Casserole
(a Stephens Family Favorite)
3 cans creamed corn
1 8 oz jar fresh oysters (med. size)
2 or more packages Saltine crackers
In a well buttered casserole layer creamed corn, dot with pieces of diced oysters, cover with crackers broken to small pieces. Repeat layers till full. End with a layer of corn topped with crackers. Dot with margarine. Sprinkle with pepper and paprika.
Bake in 350 degree F oven for 45 minutes to an hour — time will vary depending on size of casserole and juiciness of corn. This dish is better the next day so we often made it the day before the holiday.
Scalloped Corn and Oysters
1/2 c. milk
2 eggs, beaten
1 16 oz. can cream style corn
1 10 1/2 oz. can oysters (if you drain liquid, increase milk by same amount)
2 tbsp. softened butter
1 c. crushed saltine or oyster crackers
salt and pepper to taste
Combine all ingredients and pour into buttered baking dish. Bake uncovered at 350 degrees for one hour or until knife inserted comes out clean. Serves six.
Optional topping on this casserole: 1 cup crushed corn flakes combined with 1/4 cup butter, cut in pieces.
For our family at Christmas, I usually double the recipe and use one can niblets corn and one can creamed corn.
I think mom just used creamed corn, a little milk, crushed soda crackers, oysters, and a couple eggs. I can remember the last thing she did was put pats of margarine on top of it, then threw it in the oven.
The main difference is that my version is missing the eggs and milk. I think I’m going to try Shirley’s version this year!