First things first. The next time we meet, we will revisit the Govert, South Dakota, P.T.A. program performed on the evening of February 22, 1935. The readers of this blog are more excited about the food served that night after the program. Oysters? Oysters? Really? For a rural South Dakota prairie community to bond together over oysters in the middle of the Depression raised questions of availability, affordability, and refrigeration.
Lydia Gee was excited about the oyster supper. So was Mr. Laflin. Everyone was excited. The Kulisiches, the Lales, the Hortons, the Hafners, the Jorgensons, the Grandpres, the Scofields, the Calkins family, the Ellises, the Donohue brothers, Waldon Lemm, Gus Toble, Margaret Wammen, and the mysterious Howard Nichols were all excited about the oyster supper. And, as it seems, the followers of Thru Prairie Grass are, too. So let's talk about the P.T.A. menu everyone is so excited about.
Was this just the excitement of getting together, pulling together, sticking together? Gathering with friends and neighbors as an antidote to prairie isolation? Was an evening of social interaction with neighbors who might live more than two miles distant, chatting up the news, and sharing laughter over fanciful entertainments, the source of this excitement? Would this same zeal have swirled over a menu of sandwiches? Well, yes, but ... the upsurge in enthusiasm over the menu that night in February 1935 was genuine and, yes, the oyster meal was special enough to merit attention and provoke this enthusiasm.
With coastal oyster beds more than a thousand miles distant west and east, how would oysters find their way onto a menu in Harding County, South Dakota? Could Mrs. Gee's bona-fide oyster supper have been shipped from the coast, each morsel still protected by its shell; enclosed in barrels, layers of oysters alternating with layers of sawdust and ice, transported by railroad to Newell, by auto to Govert? Could the oysters have been shelled, but shipped fresh and refrigerated, transported by train and auto and stored on ice in Govert? Were the oysters shelled and frozen, with a similar path to Govert? Did the food committee purchase canned oysters at the Govert store, or a store in Newell or Belle Fourche?
That's not the half of it. What recipe did the food committee use? Steamed oysters? Deep fried oysters? Oyster fricassee? Oysters on the half shell? Oyster cocktails? Oyster patties? What version of oysters was taunting the taste buds of Goverites in February 1935? Where is your imagination taking you?
Mrs. Gee's wonder at the "bona fide oyster supper" is expanded upon in the Govert Advance in words by Mr. Laflin, the newspaper's editor (or his wife ... who never got a byline): "The jolly as well as interesting program and business meeting was followed by a supper that did full justice to the lunch committee headed by Herb Scofield and ably assisted by Wesley Horton and Waldon Lemm. The oyster stew with crackers, cake and hot coffee filled the social hour with added zest." 1
Oyster stew! The bona fide oyster supper was oyster stew! Now you know more about that night in February 1935 than you did last week. But now you also may be under-whelmed by the promise of a bona fide oyster supper.
Stick around while I divert from the clear path between oysters and stew in order to explain the early 20th century use of the words "lunch" and "supper", and then I will return to that path to explore why oyster stew was so very special. As to "lunch" ... maybe in the middle of the day you have a peaceful bowl of soup at home, or maybe you poke your fork at mystery meat on a cafeteria tray at school, or maybe you wolf down a sandwich sitting in the saddle, whether that be your 4X4 wheeled vehicle or astride your horse. And you call that "lunch". For many in earlier years, the mid-day meal was "dinner". If you travel back in time as far as we are traveling, "lunch" was considered a meal very late in the day, maybe even consumed in the early morning hours as a party winds down. However, if not too late, like this P.T.A. meeting, "lunch" might even become a substitute for "supper", the common reference to an evening meal.
Meanwhile, returning to our original path ... what is oyster stew? Simple ingredients, simple preparation, really ... milk, oysters, butter, salt and pepper to the proportions that best suit you within the limitations of what you have available. Heat and, voila, you have oyster stew.
My mother, who was raised in northeastern South Dakota, made oyster stew when I was a child. She called it stew even though the result was like what today we would call soup, with the consistency more fluid and without the viscosity of gravy. 2 If the oysters were large, my mother cut each oyster into several pieces, the goal being at least two pieces sitting in the bottom of each bowl. We were a family of seven, five children and my parents, so count out 14 pieces, with the probability more than two pieces were concealed by the milk in my father's bowl.
First, my mother sauted the oysters in butter. When the edges of the oysters started to curl, she added the rest of ingredients: salt, pepper and a small amount of diced onion with the milk. My mother relied on butter to saute the oysters, otherwise the milk would curdle. Then she simmered her stew until the milk was hot. 3 For my large family this was a special meal eaten only on the Sundays of Advent. An unusual, modest soup, with ... what do you expect for the years following the 1950s ... cottage cheese encased in lime gelatin ... on the side.
Living in small towns in the mid-west, my mother became a savvy shopper. In provisioning her larder, she was continuously on the lookout for refrigerated oysters at the grocery store, and then froze them to use later. If she had not been able to put in a supply of oysters, her shopping list for oyster stew included canned oysters.
Maybe the Govert P.T.A. food committee used canned oysters. Maybe Mr. Calkins, then proprietor of the Govert Store, was able to make special arrangements for fresh or frozen oysters. Maybe a grocery store in Belle Fourche or Newell was offering a special purchase. Maybe fresh oysters was the source of excitement. A lot of maybes make for a lot of questions, questions that may remain questions. But we can look at what was available to our Govert community to better understand what their experience may have been.
Still puzzled by the excitement over a bowl of milk soup with oysters? Mrs. Gee's exclamation over a "bona fide oyster supper" in her P.T.A. minutes is what leads us to our answer. To understand why this community, of modest origins and modest means, may have been so excited over bona fide oyster stew, we're going to explore the wide world of "mock oyster stew". As it turns out, Goverites probably had been supplementing their Depression menu with a stew made, not with bona fide oysters, but most commonly with well-cooked vegetables served in a milk broth or, as an alternative to vegetables, dare I say it ... weeds.
After evaluating a heap of recipes dating back into the 1800s, the surprise conclusion is that mock oyster stew was nothing other than a milk or creamed soup, comparable even to our canned "cream of whatever" soups today, and made out of almost anything except oysters. Often the recipes included a thickening agent like a roux made with flour and butter. Come to think of it, the crock-pots at the 2014 Lenten pot-luck soup suppers at my church were full of vegetable cream soups which decades ago may have fallen under the definition of a mock oyster stew ... and not a one of them tasted like oysters, at least as I remember oysters. You personally might not be interested in oysters, whether they be bona fide or mock. As for the oyster part of this story, just accept the fact that oysters were once surprisingly popular, you might even say folks in America were passionate about their oysters. Today you might have to be a foodie to willingly suck down one of those critters.
Let's take a look at what was expected from a mock oyster stew back in the day. Sometimes the stew was very ... very ... modest, as this recipe from 1923. "Pour into a small soup bowl one cupful of boiling water, one half a cupful of milk or cream, butter sufficient to season, and a little salt and pepper. Place in this a few oyster crackers. This makes a delicious dish and something children like." 4
Maybe the soup or stew was made of celery. "Steam the celery leaves and stalk until all the flavor is cooked out, then drain the juice and when this comes to a boil add butter, salt and pepper and milk or cream. Next break cracker crumbs into the liquid and let boil about a minute." 5
Or cabbage. "Chop small cabbage, boil until tender, stirring often. Scald about three pints milk, season with butter, salt and pepper to taste. Add cooked cabbage and boil about five minutes. Serve with oyster crackers or split common crackers, and add when cabbage is put into the milk. This makes a good substitute for oyster stew and is easily made." 6
Or mashed potatoes. "To serve six people, use three pints of milk and three cups of mashed potatoes beaten until not even the shadow of a lump remains and salted to taste. Stir the potatoes into the cold milk, then bring slowly to a boil, stirring almost continuously; but "to a boil" means stop just short of boiling! Add three well-rounded tablespoons of butter, and you have a dish that will deceive the very elect if properly served in hot dishes, with crisp toast (which must not be scorched), and celery which has stood in cold water until the very last minute." 7
Or tomatoes. "Take one pint of tomatoes - canned or fresh - and put to boil in half gallon of milk, stir in one ounce of butter and half a teaspoon of soda. Let boil and skim. Break in pieces half a pound of crackers, throw in the soup and let boil up. Season with salt and pepper." 8
Or corn. "Grate the corn fine. To a dozen ears, add 1 quart of water. Boil 15 minutes; add 2/3 of a quart of milk and 1 tablespoon of cornstarch or flour, and boil 10 minutes, add 1/4 pound butter and season well with pepper and salt." 9
Weeds were substituted for oysters, too. How about mock oyster stew made out of dandelions. "A pint of skimmed milk, a thimble size of butter, salt and pepper, and stale bread; a dish of boiled dandelions (which are very healthful) and lentils." 10
Or salsify roots, also called oyster plant, which grows wild on the prairie in and around Govert. "Wash and scrape ten salsify roots, and as you work put them in cold water to keep the roots from turning black. When they are cleaned, cut in small pieces and cover with boiling water. Boil till tender which will be from thirty minutes to an hour. Put the salsify through a colander or sieve and return to the saucepan with three cups of milk, and the water in which the salsify cooked, which will be boiled away to about a cupful. Add a small onion minced, half a teaspoon of salt, and when the soup boils stir in a tablespoon and a half of flour blended with a tablespoon of butter. Serve after the soup thickens with the flour, adding a dash of cayenne." 11
Fish could be used to make mock oyster stew. Like salt fish. "Prepare one cup of salt fish by washing, shredding, and simmering until soft; when ready to serve, put it in a shallow dish with one pint of oyster crackers, or three butter crackers split and browned, and pour over it one pint of hot milk. Add a tablespoonful of butter and half a saltspoon of pepper and serve." 12
Or a can of salmon. "One can salmon, 1 cup water, 1 quart milk, 1 lump butter, salt and pepper to taste. Method: remove bones and skin from salmon. Break into small pieces. Put into kettle with 1 cup water and boil gently for five minutes. Add 1 quart milk, salt and pepper. Let get very hot but not boiling. Add butter and serve at once with crisp oyster crackers. A small onion may be diced and boiled with salmon if desired." 13
Or brains. Yes, brains or, as my mother calls them, sweetbreads. My mother remembers that sweetbreads were used as a substitute for oysters when oysters were not available. "Prepare the brains of either a hog or beef; and put on to stew in a cup of water with a little salt and pepper; put on one quart of milk to boil, add a lump of butter; when the milk comes to a boil pour in the already cooked brains, and serve hot with crackers. Some say it tastes precisely like oysters." 14
I found a version of mock oyster stew made of white beans and another concocted out of mushrooms,15 which brings us back to that popular brand of cream of mushroom soup you will find in most every grocery store today.
Some of the recipes raise the role played by the unassuming oyster cracker, of which little history has been written. Nevertheless, a survey of the early recipes reveals the practice of adding either common crackers or oyster crackers during the preparation of the stew. This timing would have the effect of adding bulk and texture, as the crackers would absorb the fluid, rendering the crackers a function all the world like that of an oyster. The crackers shaped like oysters added to this illusion of oysters in mock oyster stew, or the appearance of having additional oysters in bona fide oyster stew. As the years passed, some bright soul discovered that the little air lock in the middle of the oyster cracker not only could fill up with fluid but, if dropped on the surface just prior to serving, allowed the oyster cracker to float. That must have been when the unflattering term of "soggy" began to be applied to oyster crackers not eaten before sinking to the bottom of the bowl.
The women of Govert would have known about mock oyster stew, learning about it from their mothers in the early 1900s, just as I learned about oyster stew from my mother in the 1960s. If mock foods are the substitute when the original is not available to you, then mock oyster stew was tailored for hard times. In 1910 mock oyster stew was described as a part of a "good, tasty, appetizing hard times" menu for Christmas dinner.16 That was the version made of mashed potatoes. Mock oyster stew was probably always a useful menu on the prairie, where personal wealth was not part of the qualification for acceptance. The meatless days that accompanied World War I would restore popularity of mock foods across America. The housewives in Govert, South Dakota, would again dust off their mothers' recipes for the years of the Depression. The 1930s had been one heck of an economic downturn for the folks in Govert, and imagination replaced the real thing.
So maybe the excitement exhibited by Goverites over bona fide oyster stew signaled the difference between mock oyster stew and the bona fide variety. The next question though is this: did the supper committee of the P.T.A. make bona fide oyster stew with bona fide fresh oysters or bona fide canned oysters? Although canned oysters would be the normal alternative for small towns far from the west coast or east coast oyster beds, and would have made feeding oyster stew to a large crowd easier and cheaper, I would like to introduce the possibility the Govert P.T.A. food committee used fresh oysters, which might account for the added excitement over milk soup.
Canned oysters allowed anyone in America, refrigeration or not, to have oyster stew year round. This Govert oyster supper was in February, planned precisely during the season fresh oysters were readily available, even in South Dakota, due consideration being given to fast train transport and ice for refrigeration. Because the Govert store did not have refrigeration, and refrigeration was generally uncommon in Govert, but for the bucket down the well, this feast might have taken some coordination, but it could have been done and the results would have been something to be excited about. The oysters, as fresh as oysters could be traveling from the coast, were probably shucked and preserved on ice ... but wouldn't a future archaeologist be all agog over a cairn of oyster-shells discovered on the Govert townsite.
In February 1935 fresh oysters were advertised in the Aberdeen, South Dakota, newspaper and would have been available in other railroad towns as well nearer to Govert, like Belle Fourche, and even Newell which benefited from a railroad spur from Belle. At the Red Owl Market in Aberdeen, oysters went for 29 cents a pint. The price at the Arcola Grocery was competitive. This may not sound like an impressive investment, but compare this to the going rate for hamburger at 12 1/2 cents a pound, or roast beef at 15 cents a pound, or two dozen oranges for 29 cents, or six pounds of sweet potatoes for 25 cents ... or 5 ounce tins of oysters for about 12 cents. Still, sometimes a modest splurge to cheer hard times is worth the sacrifice. 17
Anyone reading the Govert Advance on Thursday, February 21, 1935, would have known what was in store. That was the day before the P.T.A. meeting on Friday, the one with the creative program we will revisit the next time we meet here. The words used in that addition of the newspaper give you an even better image of that evening. "Oyster Stew! Oyster Stew! Cake and hot coffee. How does that appeal to you? If you prefer to eat your oyster stew out of a dish please bring one and also a spoon, otherwise it will be served from the tin cups. That is the treat for each and everyone attending the PTA meeting Friday evening Feb. 22, 1935." 18
What was so special about Goverites sharing bona fide oyster stew that February night at the Govert school house? The stew was probably made with bona fide oysters, and not weeds. How nice to sit back, talk to your neighbor and savor oyster stew instead of, say, salsify cream soup. No doubt about it, bona fide oyster stew, whether concocted with fresh or canned oysters, would have been a meal over which this P.T.A. crowd could get together, pull together, and stick together.
Listening to the wind blowing through the prairie grass. Kate
[You may be surprised a reference in a 1935 edition of the Govert Advance to "bona fide" oyster stew could inspire a response this long; I was. Written with gratitude to those who asked, and with thankfulness for the resources I had available to me. With special gratitude to Doug Jensen, a Harding County rancher, who confirmed the presence of salsify growing wild on the prairie in the Govert area; and to my mother, Christy VanderBoom, for a lifetime of memories, and for wanting me to have two oysters in the bottom of my bowl. If you like to read cookbooks, you will find in the footnotes links to vintage cookbooks in Google Books, a free Internet library.]
1 Govert (South Dakota) Advance, 14 March 1935.↩
2 The terms "stew" and "soup" were used interchangeably in earlier years. As the years passed, recipes resulting in a product with a more fluid consistency were relegated into the category of "soup", while "stews" had more body. Our practice in 2014 has added little clarity to the issue with the addition to the market of "thick soups" that have a much smaller proportion of fluid. For the purposes of this posting I will use "stew" without distinction.↩
3 An alternate method is to heat the milk with butter and seasonings and then add the oysters without sauteing them first. "Oysters at the Soda Fountain," American Druggist and Pharmaceutical Record, March 1913, p. 54, col. 2; digital images, Google Books (accessed 5 April 2014).↩
4 "Home Conditions and Care of Sick and Convalescent," The Daily News (Frederick, Maryland), 9 February 1923, p. 2, col, 2; digital images, Newspapers (http://www.newspapers.com/image/#8745382: accessed 5 April 5 2014).↩
5 The Springfield (Missouri) Leader, 20 February 1930, p. 15, col. 1; digital images, Newspapers (http://www.newspapers.com/image/#510|40283935: accessed 5 April 2014).↩
6 Trenton (New Jersey) Evening Times, 6 April 1922, p. 15, col. 4; digital images, GenealogyBank (accessed 5 April 2014). Or cabbage and potatoes. "In half gallon of cold water place one pint or less of finely-sliced fresh cabbage and two large potatoes cut in cubes. Boil gently three quarters of an hour, then add one pint of rich milk, with butter, salt and pepper to suit taste. Serve with oyster crackers as soon as it boils again." "Home, Farm, and Garden," Freeborn County Standard (Albert Lea, Minnesota), 14 March 1889, p. 2, col. 5; digital images, Newspapers (http://www.newspapers.com/image/#34785098: accessed April 5, 2014).↩
7 New York Observer, 15 December 1910, p. 783, col. 1; digital images, Google Books (accessed 5 April 2014).↩
8 Arkansas City (Kansas) Daily Traveler, 18 October 1887, p. 4, col. 7; digital images, Newspapers (http://www.newspapers.com/image/#53214101: accessed 5 April 2014). The Manual for Army Cooks, published under the direction of the Commissary General of Subsistence by authority of the Secretary of War, included a similar recipe (Government Printing Office, 1896), 69; digital images, Google Books (accessed 5 April 2014).↩
9 Woman's Centennial Association, Centennial Cookery Book (Marietta, Ohio: Times Print, 1888), 31; digital images, Google Books (accessed 5 April 2014). Or corn with the cob. "Mock Oyster Stew. Cut through lengthways four well filled out ears of green sweet corn, scrape out the pulp and break up the cobs, and put on in cold water to boil. When they are soft take out, as the goodness will then be out of them, and press all the water from them you can. Strain the water the cobs were boiled in, and add milk, butter, seasoning, and teaspoon of flour to thicken a bit, just as for real oyster stew. About five minutes before serving, add the corn pulp. Tastes and smells like the genuine article." The New North (Rhinelander, Wisconsin), 18 July 1907, p. 2, col. 8; digital images, Newspapers (http://www.newspapers.com/image/#8253723: accessed 5 April 2014).↩
10 "Going Through College On a Dime a Day," Plain Dealer (Cleveland, Ohio), 5 January 1913, p. 7, col. 6; digital images, GenealogyBank (accessed 5 April 2014).↩
11 [author unattributed], The Home Cook Book: A Collection of Practical Receipts by Expert Cooks (New York: Collier and Sons, 1905), 31. Salsify roots may have been harvested from the prairie where they grew and stored in the root cellar for winter use, the same way as carrots or other root vegetables. For more salsify recipes see also Helen Watkeys Moore, Camouflage Cookery: A Book of Mock Dishes (New York: Duffield and Company, 1918), 11, 12; digital images, Google Books (accessed 5 April 2014) [includes salsify recipes for mock clam chowder, mock fried oysters, mock scalloped oysters, mock clam bouillon, mock oysters, mock fish pate ]. Lilla Pauline Frich, The Housewife's Cookbook (Minneapolis: Lilla Frich, 1917), 102; digital images, Google Books (accessed 5 April 2014). The Rural New Yorker, The Rural Cookbook, (New York: The Rural Publishing Company, 1907); digital images, Google Books (accessed 5 April 2014). ↩
12 "From Day to Day," The American Kitchen Magazine, June 1898, p. 106, 110; digital images, Google Books (accessed 5 April 2014). Other similar recipes thicken the milk with "flour rubbed into a paste with butter". Luther Minter, The Compendium of Every Day Wants (Harrisburg, Pennsylvania: Minter Company, 1908), 275; digital images, Google Books (accessed 5 April 2014). Mary Johnson Lincoln, Mrs. Lincoln's Boston Cookbook (Carlisle, Massachusetts: Applewood Books, 1883), 173; digital images, Google Books (accessed 5 April 2014).↩
13 Trenton (New Jersey) Evening Times, 31 January 1935, p. 14, col. 7; digital images, GenealogyBank (accessed 5 April 2014).↩
14 The Kinsley (Kansas) Mercury, 17 April 1886, p. 4, col. 4; digital images, Newspapers (http://www.newspapers.com/image/#934|64213187 accessed 5 April 2014) ↩
15 For white beans: "The mock oyster soup is a velvety cream made with a stock of white beans which resembles oyster soup in flavor. The oyster crackers heighten the illusion." The Inter Ocean (Chicago, Illinois), 6 November 1910, p. 44 col. 1; digital images, Newspapers (http://www.newspapers.com/image/#34564743: accessed 5 April 2014). ↩
16 New York Observer, 15 December 1910, p. 783, col. 1; digital images, Google Books (accessed 5 April 2014). When made with salsify, the stew has been called Poor Man's Oyster Stew. ↩
17 Aberdeen (South Dakota) Evening News, 31 January 1935, p. 3, col. 1; digital images, GenealogyBank (accessed 5 April 2014); see also 20 February 1935, p. 10, col. 5; digital images, GenealogyBank (accessed 5 April 2014). ↩
18 Govert (South Dakota) Advance, 21 February 1935. Tin cups were available to the children during school days for drinking water.↩