Thanksgiving in a shell

The first Thanksgiving in 1621 included an abundant array of foods brought to the feast by the Wampanoag people and the Pilgrims. The native and wild foods included lobster, shellfish, deer, goose and swan, corn and nuts. No turkey is mentioned in historic accounts of the meal, though wild turkeys were in the area, and records show that a Pilgrim hunting group did go on a fowl-gathering mission before the meal.

After turkey, the most notable absence in the record is no mention of “Oster,” today’s oyster. But it’s hard for us to imagine there were none. The “erster,” as it is called by some, is a most valued succulent seafood, living in rough, tough lead-gray shells that attach to a solid object in salt and brackish waters, while feeding on algae, plankton and drifting nutrients. It removes several times its weight in organic materials daily.

Capable of laying 60 million eggs at a time, of which few survive, the oyster’s most dangerous predator is man. Seafood lovers devour oysters by the ton, but human-induced pollution in its many forms is a major problem.

Jonathan Swift declared: “He was a bold man that first ate an oyster.” Undaunted by the oyster’s rough, rock-hard, nearly-impossible-to-open shell, the undoubtedly famished first taster would have confronted the raw oyster’s almost phlegmatic, unpalatable appearance.

Once beyond any primal gagging reflex, though, he was surprisingly rewarded with the oyster’s delicate, toothy texture, rich flavor and salty liquor. The oyster is high in calcium, iron and protein, with a reputation as an aphrodisiac.

Adventuresome humans the world over have enjoyed oysters, raw and cooked, for thousands of years. Romans declared oysters as fit only for royalty, allegedly building roads to Normandy for transporting the oyster.

Oysters have long been a favorite ingredient in turkey dressing. Our grandparents, no matter where they lived, made oyster dressing for our Thanksgiving feast. We can well imagine the original feast must have included this royal delicacy.