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Martha Washington’s VA Oyster Stew

As updated by our chef extraordinaire, Sylvie Rowand.

Oyster Stew

Laughing Duck Gardens creates hearty dishes using fresh, local ingredients. Photo by Sylvie Rowand.

Oysters have long been a favorite food in Virginia, beloved by native populations as well as by the colonists. By all early accounts, our indigenous oyster, the Virginia oyster (sometimes called eastern oyster) Crassostrea virginica, was extremely abundant when the English settled Virginia.

It is estimated that the current population of Chesapeake Bay oysters is less than one percent of what it was in the 17th century.

In the second half of the 19th century, three developments led to severe overharvesting of the Chesapeake Bay oyster: new and reliable steam-powered trains allowed oysters to be shipped far from its shores; the discovery of canning facilitated its world-wide distribution; finally, industrial-scale dredging of oysters beds and reefs not only harvested oysters faster than they could reproduce but also destroyed oyster habitat (and in the process, habitat for many other species). When diseases and parasites arrived in the 1950’s they almost wiped out what remained of our native oysters.

It is estimated that the current population of Chesapeake Bay oysters is less than one percent of what it was in the 17th century. Yet oysters are critical to the health of the Bay – if only because as they feed, they filter and purify water. Indeed the Chesapeake Bay Program promotes the use of oysters to reduce excess amount of nitrogen, restore water quality and help other species. It is a lofty thing that we are pinning on this bi-valve!

Hatcheries and farms have developed both to replenish wild stock as well as for food-use. And so, in a modest way, eating Bay oysters encourage oyster growing, which benefits the Bay when done responsibly.

The old saying about only eating oysters in a month which contains the letter “r” has sound roots. In northern waters, oysters spawn in May through August: it’s not that they are unsafe to eat (as long as they have been properly refrigerated), it’s that they are spending their energy reproducing. They become more flabby and generally less tasty!

March and April are the end of good local oysters until fall again. If you have eaten oyster stew before and felt unsatisfied, try this one. I do not like the thin stew that results from dumping oysters in cream and butter (too often what passes for “stew”), so I thicken mine with an initial light roux, and then add the milk and cream to simmer. Oysters are briefly cooked in their liquid and water, then drained and refreshed – a technique used by Martha Washington over 200 years ago.

Oyster Stew
Serves 2 as main dish, 4-6 as appetizer

1          pint shucked oysters with their liquid (liquor)
2          cups water
6          tablespoons butter
2          heaping tablespoons flour
2          medium leeks, white part only, minced, rinsed & drained dry
2          medium shallots, peeled, finely minced
2          plump garlic cloves, peeled and green germ removed (if any)
1/4        cup finely minced flat parsley leaves
1          pinch cayenne pepper to taste
1 1/2    cup heavy cream
1          cup whole milk

Heat up the oysters, their liquor and 1 cup water until the oysters’ edges just start to curl. Do not boil or the oyster will toughen. Strain the oysters over a bowl, reserving the liquid. Pour remaining cup of cold water on the oysters to further freshen them, also collecting the water.  Refrigerate the oysters.

Melt butter in a thick-bottomed sauce pan on medium heat, add the flour and whisk constantly for 3-4 minutes until the mixture browns. Add the leeks, shallots, garlic, parsley, and cayenne, and cook until the shallots and leeks are soft, stirring often with a wooden spoon 20 minutes. Lower the heat if needed  to prevent burning. It’s ok that the mixture darkens somewhat, but do not let it burn.

Add the reserved oyster liquid/water, cream and milk. Bring to a simmer stirring often – about 15  minutes until the soup somewhat thickens. Be sure to scrape the bottom well to prevent scorching. As soon as bubbles form, add the reserved oysters, lower heat and cook until just warmed though – about 3 minutes.

Serve immediately.

Sylvie Rowand provides in-home catering services for dinner parties using local seasonal ingredients sourced from the Northern Virginia Piedmont. She also teaches cooking and canning workshops, writes about seasonal food and good eating for various publications, and maintains a food and kitchen gardening blog. You may reach her through her web site: