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Holiday traditions, Mom and the Oyster Trenton Cracker

I don’t remember the oyster stew itself — just the raw materials in the fridge, the sight of Mom leaning over a copper-bottomed pot at the stove, meticulously stirring the milky broth clear of a boil-over, and the smell of savory broth against a crisp olfactory backdrop of fresh-cut balsam or blue spruce from the living room.

Oyster Trenton Crackers

I don’t remember the stew itself, although Mom made it every year, come hell, high water, plague, drought or apocalypse. What I do remember — vividly — are a dozen feverish eleventh-hour cracker crises during which I learned the value of our little Mazda GLC’s “oh s- -t” handles as Mom sped from fish market to fish market, grocery store to grocery store, tachometer pinned, the December landscape a rolling blur, the car shimmying and vibrating in protest against Mrs. Harvey’s “just-stolen” driving style.

One year, homebound from school in Maine, I hit what felt like 50 stores over four New England states in search of the all-important Oyster Trenton Crackers, without which, Mom maintained, the customary Dec. 24 oyster stew would be a direct affront to every major deity, grounds for a smiting or something far, far worse. For the uninitiated, an Oyster Trenton Cracker is a Saltine-colored spherical cracker, roughly 1-1/2 inches in diameter, with a consistency somewhere between sheetrock and rose quartz. (Some might know them as Original Trenton Crackers, but they were Oyster Trenton Crackers in the Harvey house.) After 20 minutes adrift in broth, said cracker softens into a delightfully subtle new consistency. If you close your eyes, you’d swear you just bit into a ping-pong ball cored with horsehair plaster. Whatever you do while those eyes are closed, don’t even think about suggesting to Mrs. Harvey that she try those dreadful, chewable, hexagonal chowder crackers, because Mrs. Harvey wouldn’t sully the cat’s litter box with those.

The stew itself is a simple joy of coastal living and no doubt a recipe a great many Delawareans (my mother’s familial root system entered soil there) count among their holiday specialties. A half-dozen total ingredients get it done, and a cavalier approach to “improvements” affects oyster stew the way bags of medical waste affect white-sand beaches.

Inexplicably, for all its load-bearing import to Mom’s understanding of Christmas Eve ritual, I don’t specifically remember ever seeing either of my parents actually sit down and eat a bowl of the simple soup. Nor did so much as a spoonful pass my lips. Shrimp cocktail, crab stick, smoked bluefish and other holiday seafood standards I consumed in serious quantities. I was ambivalent about oysters — had no compelling urge to cross over into the “snot” end of marine cuisine, nor was I in a rush to spend potentially two days unearthing a dusty box of OTC curatives.

In January 2010, Sarah’s and my daughter, Kaya Mae, arrived, and three months after that, my dear Mom — the keeper of traditions in my family growing up — succumbed to metastatic breast cancer after what had been an interminable battle. I mourned but also saw near-constant flashes of Mom on my daughter’s small face. I found immediate and lasting solace in Kaya, as, among many other things, she is a vessel carrying a significant measure of the loving energy my mother gave the world around her. With Kaya forever sprinting, dancing, hopping or rolling into and back out of my immediate foreground, Mom’s death ceased to be a loss as much as a natural shift within a much larger continuum.

With her departure, I did feel compelled to shore up my own commitment to Mom’s traditions or carefully vetted self-improvements. This process, what has amounted to an intermittent four-year meditation on being “mindful,” has been about striking a balance between respecting the past enough to carry it into the family future and being sufficiently irreverent to jettison traditions turned lame or outdated — activities that, for whatever reason, deliver no real satisfaction or meaning to offset their inconvenience. Like — and this is a purely theoretical example with absolutely no connection to any tradition I’ve ever known — perhaps a recipe you’ve painstakingly assembled since you were 5 requires a certain type of accompanying dumpling or baguette, the annual search for which has filled you with a sense of all-consuming dread every December for as long as you can remember. Once you get over the initial sacrilege of it all, you might opt to surgically remove that cancerous baguette from a tradition you otherwise love.

Actually, absent Mom’s oyster stew, Sarah and I have created a newer, bigger, better tradition without totally trashing the old one. Partly as a means to get Kaya invested in the undertaking, we have also built some intrigue into the mission. The object is to build it around whatever I/we can assemble from local waters through ingenuity, cold-tolerance, sheer stubbornness and the good old barter system.

Tautog maintains structural integrity in chowder better than many other white fish, and the frames are ideal for making stock.

In an average year, the finished product will contain a ludicrous quantity and variety of “local” bounty: clams I’ve dug, oysters I get from a friend who works a lease on one of my local salt ponds, some recent codfish and tautog I’ve caught, monkfish and flounder from a netter friend, a multitude of sea scallops and at least a couple of lobsters. One recent season, I even lined up some potatoes, leeks and shallots from a friend who works on a local organic farm. The remaining handful of necessary items we grab from the store. All told, out-of-pocket expense typically ends up around $10.

Whatever your feelings about fishing for the table, the catch-and-release ethic, commercial fishing or even seafood in general, there’s something immensely rewarding about assembling a world-class celebratory meal with fresh, seasonal, local ingredients you’ve gathered with your own wits and a kind of resourcefulness particular to seasoned watermen in our part of the world.

Although we eat a fairly steady supply of fish through each season, generally around points when the checking account has run aground, this holiday labor of culinary love — a thin broth-and-milk-based stew with about a pound of seafood per bowl — serves not just as a gourmet cold-weather treat but also as one fitting, final celebration of a life we’ve shaped around the bounty of local waters, the generosity of good friends and the 300-year-old tradition of New England fishing. More important, it’s a tribute to my dear Mom, the late Elizabeth F. Harvey, who fought always to keep family traditions alive, even when her wise-ass son was heckling her jaw-breaking crackers.

Zach Harvey is fishing editor for Soundings.

December 2013 issue