Before and since the Americans purchased New Orleans from the French, New Orleans has remained unique and distinct, 215 years later, we still spurn convention. Thanksgiving is no exception. Where other states lead with carrot and parsnip soup, we lead with oysters: Oyster Soup, Oyster Patties and Oyster Dressing (you’ll find the recipes below in the Thanksgiving recipe section).
Not just oysters, oysters seasoned in whole or in part with our “holy trinity” — bell pepper, onion, and celery. “The trinity,” the divine secret of New Orleans’ cuisine and even our Thanksgiving menu. We then double-down and add garlic, green onion, fresh herbs and a dash of cayenne.
Yes, on occasion, we may have to boil our drinking water, read by candlelight or be rescued from the errant pothole—but that’s OK, because we know our food tastes better.
New Orleanians as a whole eschew chicken-broth-flavored stuffing in lieu of a rich, dark, Trinity based Creole oyster dressing. Mashed potatoes are equally outcast, instead, we yearn for long-grain white rice under highly seasoned turkey neck and giblet gravy. You’d be hard-pressed to find corn on a local table, but shrimp and ham stuffed mirlitons or mirliton dressing may be required by law. Even roast turkey has been replaced with the multi-layered Turducken terrine, although many households serve both.
Where does the Creole Oyster Soup fit in the meal? At the beginning.
A Creole Thanksgiving begins with a slew of oysters or shrimp entrées or appetizers served before the le plat principals or main course arrives. A cup of steaming oyster stew (or soup — the name is interchangeable) is served first.
Some families combine two courses by serving their oyster stew in pastry shells in place of the traditional oyster patty filling (I don’t recommend it). Others serve both oyster soup and oyster patties and split the courses with a small chilled salad or shrimp remoulade. All of this is long before great-grand-mère’s oyster dressing and the mirlitons makes their required appearance.
If your Thanksgiving skips the tradition of oyster soup, it can still be found in a few Creole New Orleans’ restaurants that have been family-owned for generations, such as Brennan’s during the holidays or Casamento’s.
Casamento’s simple buttery version of freshly shucked oysters poached in a milky seasoned broth has been a favorite of locals for generations, 99 years to be exact and has been prepared in-house by Casamento’s grandson, Charles Joseph “CJ” Gerdes, for the past 40 years.
Antoine’s version of oyster stew is richer and more complicated, using cayenne and heavy cream mixed with milk. The dish, now only on special menus, has evolved in the 178 years they’ve served it. Although the stew was already a mainstay in the French Quarter before Antoine’s restaurant began serving it in 1840, it remains one of the oyster dishes for which they, and New Orleans, are famous.
Antoine’s Creole Oyster Soup
50 medium oysters shucked with 1 cup of the oyster liquor reserved
12 tbsp. unsalted butter
5 tbsp. flour
4 ribs celery finely chopped
4 cloves garlic finely chopped
1 large onion finely chopped
1⁄2 cup finely chopped curly parsley
2 tbsp. parsley leaves for garnish
1 tbsp. kosher salt OR ½ tbsp. table salt
1 1⁄2 tsp. freshly ground black pepper
1⁄4 tsp. cayenne pepper
2 cups whole fat milk
2 cups heavy cream
Combine oyster liquor with 1 cup water in a 2-quart saucepan. Bring to a simmer over medium heat. Add the oysters and simmer until their edges just begin to curl, about 2 minutes. Strain oysters through a fine sieve set over a medium bowl. Reserve oysters and cooking liquid separately.
Heat butter in a 4-quart saucepan over medium-high heat. Add flour and cook, whisking constantly, until golden brown, 3–4 minutes. Reduce heat to medium; add celery, garlic, onions, parsley, salt, pepper and cayenne pepper. Cook, stirring frequently with a wooden spoon, until onions and celery are very soft, about 25 minutes.
Stir in milk, cream and reserved oysters with their cooking liquid and cook, stirring occasionally, until just hot, about 5 minutes.
(recipe from Antoine’s cookbook)
Casamento’s Creole Oyster Stew
¼ pound butter
1 cup chopped onion
¼ cup chopped parsley
2 tbsp. salt
1 quart of oysters
½ gallon of whole milk
Sauté onion, salt, parsley, and onions until almost translucent, add oysters and cook until oysters edges curl. Add the milk and bring to a soft boil stirring gently. Let cool a few minutes and then serve with Crystal hot sauce.
(recipe from Linda Gerdes and “CJ” Gerdes of Casamento’s)
Creole Oyster Dressing Recipe
I learned this recipe from the elbow of my Irish Channel cousin Velma, age 93. It was her mother’s from the 1800s. (My Great-Grandmother’s Oyster Dressing, also unchanged for 130 plus years, includes the addition of finely minced ground beef or chicken livers.)
2/3 cup butter
1 tbsp. olive oil
2/3 cup chopped celery
1 cup green bell pepper chopped
2 large yellow onions chopped
3 cups French bread torn small
1 egg slightly beaten
2 tbsp. parsley chopped
1-pint oysters, reserve oyster liquid (about 20-25 small oysters)*
1/8 tsp. basil
1/8 tsp. sage
1/8 tsp. thyme
Italian bread crumbs
1/4 cup melted butter
*buy extra oyster liquid if possible
Start by buttering a 2-quart casserole dish or baking pan. Put aside. Drain the oysters, reserve every precious drop of the liquid. Cut oysters in half if large.
Sauté the Trinity (bell pepper, onions and celery), cayenne and salt in butter and olive oil over medium heat until soft. Next, add the parsley and sauté for another minute. Add minced garlic toward the end, for a modern version.
Add the oyster liquid and stir on low heat for another 4 minutes. Add the oysters, stirring gently with a wooden spoon until the oysters barely begin to curl. Watch carefully and do not fully cook the oysters. They will continue to cook in the oven.
Remove from stove, slowly adding the French bread, remaining seasonings (fresh is best) and egg. Fold into a baking dish, sprinkle with seasoned breadcrumbs, and dot with remaining butter.
Bake 20-30 minutes in a 350-degree oven.
Those who would like to try the dish without cooking can order Oyster Dressing at Langenstein’s, top with breadcrumbs and butter before baking. Their version is the closest to the Creole original.
Creole Oyster Patties
The following is how I remember cooking my great-grand-mère’s recipe as a child and still do today, with the addition of fresh thyme.
1 pint of oysters (3-4 dozen small or large oysters coarsely chopped)
1 stick of butter
1 cup green onions finely chopped
1 cup parsley finely chopped
1 cup of “the holy trinity” (finely diced celery, bell pepper and onion)
3 cloves of garlic minced
1 ½ tsp. fresh thyme finely chopped
3 tbsp. flour
3 to 4 tbsp. heavy cream
1 to 1 ½ cups of oyster liquor
¼ teaspoon cayenne pepper
Tabasco to taste
Salt and pepper to taste
Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
Strain oysters reserving oyster liquor, a precious commodity — do not spill a drop. Coarsely chop oysters if large, cut in half if small, and place to the side.
Sauté seasonings in melted butter until soft, and then add garlic and sauté until translucent. Over low heat, add flour slowly stirring into seasoning until smooth. Add oyster liquor, cayenne, cream, and thyme, stirring gently for about 5-6 minutes. Stop when oyster edges begin to curl.
Season to taste with salt, pepper and Tabasco. Remove from heat. The mixture should be thickish and creamy. Add more flour and cream if necessary, but remember to balance the seasoning accordingly.
Spoon the oyster filling into individual patty shells and replace “lid” on each patty. Bake until golden brown and filling begins to bubble, about 12-20 minutes.
Serve hot directly from the oven.
Traditional patty shells can be purchased from:
4037 Jefferson Highway, New Orleans, LA 70121
Swiss Confectionary Bakery
747 St Charles Ave, New Orleans, LA 70130
Maurice French Pastry
3501 Hessmer, Metairie, LA 70002
4949 W. Napoleon, Metairie, LA 70001
Kristine Froeba is a fourth generation Uptown girl whose varied background includes food and travel writing, celebrity ghost writing, public relations, social media management, fundraising, preservationist, reluctant tabloid hack, and litigation specialist. She describes herself as part foodie, part writer, part historian, historic renovation zealot, and full-time dabbler.