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Munchies

The Long, Weird History and Mythology of Oyster Ice Cream

The genuine mystery and historical revisionism of that first Thanksgiving in Plymouth has led to an unending quest to uncover authentic-but-little-known Thanksgiving dishes—such as oyster ice cream.

by Alex Swerdloff
Nov 18 2016, 8:00pm

Photo via Flickr user smiteme

Historians know just a few things about the very first Thanksgiving in Plymouth in 1621—and almost all of those things fly directly in the face of the preconceived notions the rest of us have about our favorite food-focused holiday. Records are sparse, but we know that the original Thanksgiving was attended by approximately 140 men and zero women, and it actually lasted for several days. Swan and passenger pigeon—a now-extinct bird—almost certainly eclipsed turkey as the main course of choice. Sweet potatoes with marshmallows? Not so much.

Both the genuine mystery and historical revisionism of that first Thanksgiving has led to an unending quest to uncover authentic-but-little-known Thanksgiving dishes—which may actually explain why oyster ice cream has become a thing.

That's right, oyster ice cream.

A growing number of news stories has suggested that oyster ice cream is a blast from the past that we need to resurrect, especially on Thanksgiving. Mark Twain is said to have loved the stuff and to have referenced it in The Adventures of Tom Sawyer. Dolley Madison was reputed to have served it at the White House. George Washington allegedly couldn't get enough of the briny confection. Now you can even learn how to make oyster ice cream on YouTube. And none other than famed Chef José Andrés has featured the confection at his America Eats Tavern in Washington, DC—a restaurant billed as a "unique take on America's classic cuisine," which started out as a pop-up in conjunction with the Smithsonian Museum of American History. Google "oyster ice cream" and "Thanksgiving" and you'll get 1,700 results.

All this got me thinking, did the Pilgrims and Indians indulge in oyster ice cream back in Plymouth Colony? Is oyster ice cream the most American food there ever was? Why the fuck aren't America's elderly knocking back oyster sundaes and fondly reminiscing about the good ol' days?

I decided to look into this bizarre cultural phenomenon, and found that the dish does indeed have deep historical roots. Tucked into a cookbook called The Virginia Housewife, published in the year 1824—two centuries after that first Thanksgiving, but 40 years before Thanksgiving became a federal holiday—oyster ice cream made its first appearance in writing. That recipe—or receipt, as they were called then—is for a savory concoction made of the broth of a rich oyster soup, strained, and then frozen. The recipe appears in a chapter of the cookbook dedicated to other ice creams, and is listed comfortably—and not at all ironically—amid raspberry, strawberry, coconut, and chocolate ice creams.

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But, here's the thing: To the knowledge of the several culinary historians I spoke with, oyster ice cream never showed up in any other American cookbook ever again. What's more, no other authoritative records point to the popularity—or even the existence—of oyster ice cream.

What the hell? Was Mary Randolph playing some sort of sick, twisted joke on all of us from beyond the grave? And perhaps more to the point: Are we crazy to think oyster ice cream sounds like the most American dish to ever to grace our shores?

As I began to dig deeper into the history of oyster ice cream, the myths were quickly debunked. A search of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer revealed no references to oyster ice cream. Dolley Madison never served it, according to several historians I contacted, although she did serve plenty of other types of ice cream for sure. And Frank Clark, head of the Department of Historic Foodways at Colonial Williamsburg told The Virginian- Pilot, "There is no connection between George Washington and oyster ice cream," although he'd heard the myth mentioned before.

Must we all lay our oyster ice cream dreams to bed? What was going on in the head of that Virginia housewife, after all? Did early Americans ever love a thing called oyster ice cream—and is it possible that it was ever served at a single Thanksgiving? Needless to say, I felt a strong need to resolve this culinary question.

One thing quickly became clear: Oysters clearly played an extremely vital role in early American cuisine. Cathy Kaufman, a New School professor and food historian who has taught a class on the food of the founding fathers for the Institute of Culinary Education, told me, "Oysters were cheap, plentiful and enjoyed by all social classes, especially along the Eastern seaboard. The earliest oysters were larger than what we have now, as the beds have been depleted by overharvesting and pollution."

In fact, the oysters of early America sound pretty legendary; Michael Krondl, a food writer and cultural historian, explained that some oysters harvested in New York harbor were said to be as big as plates. Oysters were so plentiful in the early 19th century, he told me, they were given away free at bars, like peanuts. Stephen Schmidt, a food historian who specializes in pre-1900 cooking, added, "Any fine dinner in the 19th century included some sort of oyster dish: raw (for the first course of dinners a la russe), pickled (for evening parties), scalloped (the favorite company dish), patties, loaves/rolls, and pies."

Fine. Early Americans loved oysters. Another fact: they also loved ice cream. Schmidt explained, "Ice cream was always popular among the well-to-do, who had ice houses, as Randolph did." In these houses, ice and snow was packed with insulation made from straw or sawdust and it could keep for months. It wasn't until the last quarter of the 19th century, however, that ice was manufactured, and that's when "iced desserts became more accessible across the social spectrum."

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But the mystery remained unsolved: When did these two foods unite, if at all? The culinary experts I reached out to were befuddled by oyster ice cream. "I have never seen a recipe for oyster ice cream other than Randolph's," Schmidt said. "I have been perplexed by oyster ice cream ever since I spotted a recipe for it in Mary Randolph's Virginia House-Wife many, many years ago. I do not know its place in the dinner schema of the time—perhaps it replaced the soup or was served as an alternative choice to a soup (instead of a second soup, as was typical), but I am only guessing." Cathy Kaufman agrees. She said, "It is very odd."

Maybe it wasn't an ice cream at all, the historians speculate, despite its placement in Randolph's book in the middle of the ice cream section, right next to the chocolate. Schmidt said it is his opinion that "oyster ice cream had nothing to do with 'dessert.'" Food historian and ice cream scholar Jeri Quinzio agrees. Quinzio believes that the recipe may be for a chilled soup. Other suggested it was more like a fromage glacé, which, as Cathy Kaufman pointed out, "would make it an entremêt, essentially a savory palate cleanser in a second course served à la française, or a latter course served à la russe."

My head was beginning to spin. If oyster ice cream made only one authentic appearance in American culinary history—in Mary Rudolph's cookbook—then why all the speculation about oyster ice cream being a true American dessert served at early Thanksgivings?

Capehart was adamant on this point: "There would not have been any ice cream at the so-called 'first' Thanksgiving. There was no way to store/keep ice from the previous winter and there probably wouldn't have been any need or desire to have ice cream, as the early colonists at Plymouth had just watched half their number die off and New England late autumns weren't all that warm."

Point taken.

Bottom line, Capehart said, is that "the first Thanksgiving" and all its trappings, is a late 19th-century invention. She said, "Most of what we learn in school is a myth! Besides, Jamestown in Virginia was the real first colony in the US. But that's a whole 'nother story."

Oh well. Dreams die hard. Who knows? Future research may reveal a deep-seated love for oyster ice cream among the masses throughout early-American history, but it doesn't look likely in the least. In the meantime, should you want to go back into history and recreate Mary Rudolph's original—and, it seems, unique—recipe for the oyster ice cream, here it is.

Happy Thanksgiving.

Recipe for Oyster Ice Cream from The Virginia Housewife

OYSTER CREAM Make a rich soup, (see directions for oyster soup,) strain it from the oysters, and freeze it.

OYSTER SOUP Wash and drain two quarts of oysters, put them on with three quarts of water, three onions chopped up, two or three slices of lean ham, pepper and salt; boil it till reduced one-half, strain it through a sieve, return the liquid into the pot, put in one quart of fresh oysters, boil it till they are sufficiently done, and thicken the soup with four spoonsful of flour, two gills of rich cream, and the yelks of six new laid eggs beaten well; boil it a few minutes after the thickening is put in. Take care that it does not curdle, and that the flour is not in lumps; serve it up with the last oysters that were put in. If the flavour of thyme be agreeable, you may put in a little, but take care that it does not boil in it long enough to discolour the soup.