The Gulf oyster has had a disastrous decade. The Deepwater Horizon explosion and oil spill in 2010 killed up to 6 billion of the adult population. More recently the opening of the Bonnet Carré Spillway on the Mississippi River decimated the saltwater ecosystem of the Mississippi Sound, including what are still among the largest remaining oyster reefs in the world. Recovery is underway. A $5 million oyster restoration plan is in the works; the oysters will be seeded this winter in over 200 square miles of artificial reefs to grow undisturbed until 2021. And oyster farming shows huge promise
While the oyster numbers are way down, if you see a generic oyster in a supermarket or a raw bar, it’s probably still a Gulf oyster, which is a strain of Eastern oyster, Crassostrea virginica, found on the Atlantic coast. Gulf oysters tend to be large, tender, and well-suited to cooking. Rockefeller sauce overwhelms a delicate Olympia, but the meaty Gulf oyster holds its own even in dressing.
Oyster dressing is a favorite of New Englanders that dates back to the 18th century when oysters were abundant along the eastern coast of North America. Oysters had been used in the British Isles with or without bread crumbs for stuffing for over 335 years. In Britain, oysters were added to stuffing that was more traditionally used in fowl, fish, calves head, leg of mutton, hares, and pigs, and this tradition was brought over with British colonists. Oysters were once so cheap and plentiful that many early American cooks stuffed their turkeys and chicken with oysters. As the oysters declined along the Eastern seaboard, so did oyster dressing, and now the dish is most often encountered along the Gulf.
As I’ve said elsewhere (I’m sure) dressings tend to have more wheat bread the closer you get to the Gulf Coast, and oyster dressing is no exception; most Louisiana recipes call for a stale French loaf of some kind. However, inland recipes and older recipes most often call for cornbread. While the one I’m giving you here is mine, it’s typical of the upland South in that cornbread is used and green pepper is not.
Lightly butter a large baking pan and preheat oven to 350. Sauté two cups diced white onion and two cups diced celery in a half stick butter on low heat until tender. Cook a pint of oysters with liquid in a half stick butter until oysters are just done, the edges beginning to curl. You can add a bunch of chopped green onions to this if you like. Remove from heat, add a tablespoon dried thyme, a tablespoon dried basil and a tablespoon ground sage. Combine three cups crumbled dry cornbread and three cups crumbled dry bread crumbs in a large bowl. Add vegetables and butter along with three eggs well-beaten. Mix well, adding enough congealed chicken broth (if needed) to make a thick slurry. It should be quite moist. Add to pan and bake until golden brown and center is set, about forty-five minutes to an hour.