Thursday, December 13, 2012

Christmas Eve Stew

I write and speak for a living, but I still like writing just for fun. So when I heard about a local Christmas writing contest I thought I’d stretch my creative muscles and give it a shot. My story won 2nd place! While I enjoyed the chance to write about something outside of the norm, God chose to use that time to remind me of a Christmas memory I truly cherish. I hope this story blesses your heart, slows your pace, and helps you to embrace a little of your own history.
Blessings to you!

I stood wide-eyed in front of the Christmas tree. It towered over my seven year old frame and twinkled like a thousand tiny stars. Handmade ornaments and bright shiny balls adorned the tree but my attention was fixed on what lay beneath it - Christmas presents.

It was a tradition in my family to open our presents on Christmas Eve. In hind sight, I'm sure it was a solution my parents came up with to avoid an over-booked Christmas Day. Four kids, two sets of grandparents on opposite sides of town, and tons of presents is a lot to stuff into one day. But none of that mattered to me. I was the envy of all my friends because I didn't have to wait until Christmas morning.

“Dinner time!” my mom called as she walked through the house beckoning everyone to come to the kitchen. My heart sank. It was time for stew.

Every year my mom made oyster stew for Christmas Eve dinner. The stew was a favorite of my dad's parents. Coming from the cold winter of Illinois, Grammie would make it each year before my parents were married. So Mom continued their tradition now that they spent each Christmas with us in Texas. It was the only obstacle standing between me and brightly wrapped bliss.

I walked to the stove and peeked into the large black roasting pot. Canned oysters floating in a pond of milk and melted butter...yuck! All of the kids hated it. Pulverizing Saltine crackers into our bowl to thicken the soup was the only way to make the meal palatable.

We gathered around the table as Dad said grace. Then all of the kids slumped down into their seats and the complaining began.

“Do we have to eat this?”

“This is gross. Can I have peanut butter and jelly instead?”

“Why do we have to have this every year?”

My grandparents never said a word. I was too young to notice that our lack of subtlety was hurtful to them. We didn’t want any part of their much loved tradition and had no reservations about sharing our disdain. One look from Mom told us to stop talking and eat. Resigned to the fact that I had to eat the stew, I reluctantly drowned my crackers in the milky broth and looked forward to the presents ahead.

By the next year, Grammie had passed away and Mom had grown tired of the endless complaining about the oyster stew. She decided to incorporate a family favorite into the menu - pizza. The smell of the pepperoni pizza cooking in the oven whipped us kids into frenzy. Not only did we get to open presents on Christmas Eve, we didn't have to eat the stew! In the midst of my excitement, I failed to notice that Grandpa ate the stew in silence, longing to spend just one more Christmas with his true love.

Our unique tradition always remained the same. We ate pizza and oyster stew and then exchanged gifts. As I got older, I finally realized the stew wasn’t important to Grandpa, the memories were. Instead of racing through my meal and running to the Christmas tree to distribute presents, I lingered at the dinner table and listened to Grandpa’s stories of Christmas’ past. We were not just choking down milky oysters, we were revisiting days gone by. Only then did I learn that Grandpa’s mother used to make the stew when he was a boy and Grammie never cared for it either. But she loved him and that was a small way to show that love. The small piece of their history had become precious to me.

The Christmas after Grandpa passed away we decided to try a new recipe for the traditional oyster stew. The Golden Oyster Stew recipe included potato soup, onions, mushrooms and even bacon! The new flavors blended beautifully with the oysters creating a rich and hearty chowder. Topped with a sprinkle of cheddar cheese, it was heavenly!

The Golden Oyster Stew became the new version of the old classic. Now everyone enjoys the pizza and a bowl of stew together. My parents, siblings, children, nieces and nephews all gather together on Christmas Eve. Our ‘have to’ has become a ‘want to' as a little piece of my grandparents' legacy lives on through our Christmas Eve stew.

Golden Oyster Stew

3 bacon strips
1/2 cup onion, chopped
1/2 cup celery, chopped
2 cups mushrooms, sliced
1/4 cup all-purpose flour
1/2 tsp. salt
1/2 tsp. pepper
2 cups skim milk
1 can (10.5 oz.) condensed cream of potato soup
1 1/2 cups low fat sharp cheddar cheese, shredded
1 can (12 oz.) oysters, drained
1 jar (2oz.) pimentos, drained
1/4 tsp. bottled hot pepper sauce (I use more) 

Brown bacon in pot: remove most of the grease.  Crumble bacon: add onion and celery and cook, stirring constantly. 1 minute or until tender.
Combine flour, salt, and pepper.  Add to vegetable mixture, stirring well; cook 1 minute.  Gradually add milk, stirring until smooth; cook, stirring often, until mixture starts to  thicken.
Add soup and cheese, stirring until cheese melts.  Add oysters, pimentos and hot sauce; continue cooking over medium heat, stirring often, until oysters begin to curl.  (About 5-10 minutes)  Serve immediately.  Serve with a crusty French bread, if desired.  Serves 6.


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