New Orleans Thanksgiving 2020: Socially distanced Creole Oyster Dressing

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Creole Oyster Dressing in individual ramekins. (Kristine Froeba)

Below is the Oyster Dressing recipe I’ve prepared since 2006. It was recorded at the elbow of my cousin Velma, then 93. At 4-foot-10, still whip-smart and eternally feisty, she bossily instructed me in “the right way” to prepare the family dressing for an “authentic Creole New Orleans Thanksgiving.”

Her recipe cards and everything else she’d owned were stolen a year before “by that hussy Katrina,” her sobriquet for the hurricane. The recipe she passed down that day, first prepared by her family in the 1800s, had been committed to memory during Prohibition.

Little Velma grew up in an Irish Channel shotgun next to the Brennans, the local restaurateur family. She always alluded to cooking rivalries between the mothers who shared a front porch and a clothesline. Oh, to be a fly on the wall, two Irish women in long skirts debating Creole recipes in turn-of-the-century New Orleans. We’ll never know if it’s true, but I sure hope it was.

Two Oyster Dressings

By necessity, my Thanksgiving table yields two different Oyster Dressings each year, the Creole French-Spanish (and perhaps German influenced) version and the Irish-Italian version. This might sound confusing to someone who’s not from New Orleans, but, it’s all in the family for our melting pot of locals.

My great-grandmother’s Oyster Dressing recipe, originally from New Orleans, traveled upriver to Plaquemines then back to the city in a reversal of fortune during the last pandemic in 1919.

The century-old recipe’s preparation is almost identical to Velma’s mother’s, but mysteriously includes the addition of a cup of finely minced and browned ground beef. I’ve added fresh herbs and olive oil to the recipe.

Socially Distanced Oyster Dressing

Family recipes, lore and tradition aside, this is a year that calls for change. Even the holiest of holies, Creole Oyster Dressing, is turning over a new leaf in my house.

For the first time, great-grandmother’s or arrière grand-mère’s oldest recipe will be baked in individual mini casseroles, or as she would have preferred, les ramequins or ramekins.

Due to COVID-19, New Orleanians are chopping less trinity. Larger feasts are being shelved and replaced with small socially distant outdoor gatherings. Hence, Creole Oyster Dressing has adapted too. Each ramekin is yours to retreat to whatever corner of the yard or porch that you choose.

For those not in the mood to cook, local grocers such as Breaux Mart and Langenstein’s offer delicious and authentic Oyster Dressings that can be purchased without ordering ahead of time. Before baking, I recommend topping their catered dressings with extra bread crumbs and a thin drizzle of melted butter before placing them in the oven.

Creole Oyster Dressing

2/3 stick real butter
1 Tbsp. virgin olive oil
1 cup chopped celery
1 cup green bell pepper, chopped
1 ½ cups large yellow onions ,chopped
3-4 cups French bread torn small
1 egg slightly beaten
2 Tbsps. parsley chopped
1 pint oysters (20-25 small oysters), reserve oyster liquid
(request extra oyster liquid if possible, if unavailable use chicken broth to moisten if necessary)
Salt
Black pepper
1/8 Tsp. basil
1/8 Tsp. sage
1/8 Tsp. thyme
Progresso Bread Crumbs (an Italian New Orleans family brand) or plain, no panko
1/4 cup melted butter

  • Start by buttering 6-8 ramekins depending on size. Put aside.
  • Drain the oysters, reserve every precious drop of the oyster liquid. Cut oysters in half if large.
  • Sauté the trinity (bell pepper, onions, and celery) in butter and olive oil over medium heat until soft.
  • Next, add the parsley and sauté for another minute. Add minced garlic and a teaspoon of low-salt Cajun seasoning toward the end for a modern version.
  • Add all of 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 thoroughly cook the oysters. They will continue to cook in the oven.
  • Remove from stove, slowly add the French bread and remaining seasonings (fresh herbs are best), and egg.
  • Fold dressing mixture into individual ramekins, then sprinkle with seasoned breadcrumbs, and dot with the remaining butter.
  • Bake for 20 minutes in a 350-degree oven.

If you prefer cooking the recipe in a casserole dish, bake for an extra five to 10 minutes.

Happy Thanksgiving.

Kristine FroebaKristine 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.

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