A Nice Oyster Supper

25 Apr

There’s a recurring theme in many of Isabella’s books you may have noticed:

Whenever a group of characters needed to raise money for their church or favorite cause, their first inclination was to earn the money through a social event.

Ad from a 1918 North Carolina newspaper.

Isabella’s characters held fairs and festivals, old folk’s suppers and young folk’s concerts, character parties and tableaux, strawberry soirees and ice cream socials—all in the name of raising money for their church or charity.

Announcement in Fort Mill Times (South Carolina), November 17, 1910.

Carrie Spafford in The Pocket Measure didn’t see the sense of it. She asked:

“Why do you suppose we always think of devices of this kind whenever we talk about money for the cause of Christ?”

Carrie asked a good question. Whenever there was money to be earned, Isabella’s characters—much like the people in churches Isabella observed first hand—spent long hours and lots of money to stage events by which they hoped to receive donations for their cause.

The Camden (Tennessee) Chronicle, February 9, 1912.

The most popular method Isabella’s characters turned to for raising money was the oyster supper.

That’s what happened in Isabella’s short story, “Circulating Decimals.” As soon as the ladies of the Penn Avenue Church realized the church library was in need of new books, they decided to take action.

Up rose the women, the respectable, middle-aged, matronly women. The library must be replenished, the money must be raised. They—the matrons—would do this thing speedily and quietly. They would have an oyster supper on a large scale, make preparation for a great many guests, furnish oysters in every possible style, and with them such coffee as only they could make, to say nothing of the inevitable cake and cream, and side dishes for those who did not relish oysters. So they went to work quietly, skillfully, expeditiously. Baking, broiling, frying, stewing!

A portion of a comic appearing in the Washington DC Evening Star, January 1, 1911.

Oysters were also the go-to choice when Isabella’s characters entertained guests in their home.

Preparing an oyster supper; and 1873 print.

Flossie Roberts served oysters with jellies and sauces to the rough boys in her Sunday-school class in Ester Ried Yet Speaking.

Oysters with Lemon, a painting by Otto Scholderer, 1891.

And when the impoverished Cameron family in What They Couldn’t struggled to find a way to entertain their society friends with little money, they decided to invite their discerning friends to a simple lunch:

Their ideas of simplicity would have bewildered some people. A lunch without salads was not to be thought of, of course; and chicken salads were the best. No matter if chicken was very expensive just now, it did not take a great deal for a salad. Then oysters were just getting nice, and, after the long summer, seemed so new; raw oysters were the very thing with which to begin a lunch. Served on the half-shell and properly garnished, there was no simple dish which looked more inviting.

A plate of oyster patties from Mrs. Beeton’s Book of Cookery, 1907.

In these stories, and many others, Isabella was sharing a very real circumstance of life in late 19th and early 20th century America:

America loved oysters and ate them in abundance.

Business card for an oyster dealer, 1880.

Fresh oysters were prized, but thanks to advancements in canning methods, oysters could be shipped inland to Midwest cities that previously had no means for buying and consuming seafood.

And new techniques for harvesting oysters made them so abundantly available, their cost was half as much as beef, per pound. They were inexpensive and popular, and Americans couldn’t get enough of them.

A plate of grilled oysters, from Mrs. Beeton’s Book of Cookery, 1907.

Cook books of the time had recipes for stewed oysters, fried oysters, broiled oysters, and pickled oysters.

A 1915 cookbook published by the Oyster Growers and Dealers Association of North America. You can click on the cover to see the entire cookbook.

Americans served oyster patties, oyster pies, and soups. They added oysters to their meats, stuffed them in turkeys, and scrambled them with eggs.

For those who didn’t want to prepare oysters themselves, they could find oysters on the menu of most restaurants and public houses.

The Union Oyster House in Boston, Massachusetts was founded in 1826 and is still in business today.

Most major towns in America could boast an oyster parlor or oyster saloon.

A 1903 newspaper ad for a Louisiana oyster saloon offering a ladies’ private parlor.

Many such establishments had private dining rooms for ladies, where they could eat oysters in an environment that did not offend their delicate sensibilities.

An 1881 ad for an oyster saloon in Astoria, Oregon.

Americans’ love for oysters spawned an entirely new industry of serving plates and utensils designed specifically for oysters.

An oyster plate from the late 1800s. With six oyster wells, it is decorated in the Chinoiserie style popular at the time.

It’s no wonder, then, that when Isabella’s characters planned a dinner or a party, they naturally thought to put oysters on the menu. They were inexpensive, easy to prepare, and almost everyone liked them.

A silver oyster fork from Tiffany & Company, dated 1872

But cooking and selling oysters didn’t guarantee that a fund-raising event would be successful. Though festivals and dinners and other fund-raisers were very stylish, Isabella believed that more money and effort were spent on putting the events together than the organizers ever made from donations.

When talk turned to having a fund-raising festival of some kind in The Pocket Measure, Callie Spafford stated Isabella’s opinion plainly:

“Haven’t you often seen gentlemen eat fifty cents worth of oysters and cake and cream and fruit and celery, and I don’t know what else, and pay twenty-five cents for it all, and think they were being benevolent?”

Despite the questionable economics, oyster suppers remained a favorite form of charity fundraisers in America . . . and in Isabella’s novels.

 

4 Responses to “A Nice Oyster Supper”

  1. customdesigned April 25, 2018 at 3:40 pm #

    All I have to say about oysters is . . . “Ewww!”

  2. customdesigned April 25, 2018 at 4:04 pm #

    However, coming from the sea, those oysters probably saved many a child from cretinism (iodine deficiency mental retardation) – the inevitable result of severe iodine deficiency in the very young. Following the discovery of the importance of iodine in preventing brain damage, the early 20th century saw a world wide effort to add iodine to various staples like salt – a great boon to inland communities whose iodine intake was subject to the vagaries of local soil conditions. Even without severe deficiency, IQ is enhanced with more iodine – up to a point: iodine accumulates like vitamin D and becomes toxic at prolonged extreme doses. The Japanese diet exemplifies optimum iodine intake according to modern research.

    As time went on, bread makers used potassium iodide as a dough conditioner, soda pop used it as an emulsifier, and iodine intake in America was excellent for almost everyone – until an unfortunate incident in the 60s where mental patients were poisoned by drugs containing high levels of iodine. This caused an irrational over-reaction in the public, which then demanded that iodine be prohibited in products like bread and soda. Manufacturers then began to use bromine compounds as a substitute. Unfortunately, bromine is not an essential nutrient, and is neuro-toxic to some degree at any dose.

    I would have recommended dried seaweed rather than oysters for an iodine source in Pansy’s day – but perhaps they didn’t have anything like sealed plastic bags to keep it dry for shipping long distances by rail. I also like canned fish.

    • Isabella Alden April 25, 2018 at 8:49 pm #

      That’s an interesting point I hadn’t thought of, Stuart. Thanks for adding to the discussion! —Jenny

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Writer Jenny Berlin

Faith, romance, and a place to belong

The Hall in the Grove

Author of Classic Christian Fiction

Isabella Alden

Author of Classic Christian Fiction

Britt Reads Fiction

Reviews and giveaways for Christian fiction and sweet, clean fiction. Bringing readers information on great stories and connecting authors with their readers.

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