As I put together my menu for Christmas eve and day, I turn to one of my favorite food writers for inspiration. M.F.K Fisher wrote many wonderful books, including the memorable Consider the Oyster. I re-read this short book often as some elemental wisdom is contained in the words–possibly because it was written in 1941, in the shadow of the decline and death of the love of her life. She once wrote “…It is three basic needs, for food and security and love are so mixed and mingled and entwined that we cannot straightly think of one without the others. So it happens that when I write of hunger, I am really writing about love and the hunger for it, and warmth and the love of it and the hunger for it.”

Early Americans were crazy about oysters. They were abundantly available along the coast and were a good source of nutrition, thus they were incorporated into many recipes. It is traditional to begin with an oyster stew on Christmas eve. So I look up M.F.K. Fisher’s many recipes for oyster stew and am amazed by the subtle complexities, despite the fact that at it’s most basic state it simply contains rich milk, butter, salt, pepper, & oysters. The secret seems to be in the order in which things are cooked and the minute variation of ingredients.

The commercial aspects of the holidays have worn thin for me, and I realize that what I want more than anything around the holidays is to share meals with the people I love. Fisher helps ease my fears that I put too much of my energy into planning, cooking and eating. She once said, “I decided at the age of nine that one of the best ways to grow up is to eat and talk quietly with good people.” Now with the popularity of research into “blue zones”–areas where people are happiest and live longest–her feeling at nine seems to be correct, eating together is a major contributor to happiness & health.

In her “last house” later in her life

Travels around the world influenced her work, she once remarked “I can no more think of my own life without thinking of wine and wines and where they grew for me and why I drank them when I did and why I picked the grapes and where I opened the oldest procurable bottles, and all that, than I can remember living before I breathed.” Fisher believed in the beautiful and curated life, not of money and things but experiences. Her book “How to Cook a Wolf” talks about how to live well in times of rationing and poverty.

Cros-des-Cagnes where she once lived

She lived for a time in the town of Dijon

A house they rented for a while in France

For her “last house” she built a house in California on the property of David Bouverie, a London architect who bought land in Sonoma Valley that is now Audubon Canyon Ranch. He was a renowned host who was visited by many luminaries and the match must have been a natural one. Her house had a view of the bell tower that he built of native rocks from the property and Fisher said it reminded her of Provence.

David Bouverie designed bell tower

“Last house”

A view of the bell tower would be visible directly in front of her

Fisher wrote about her legacy: “The only real thing to leave in the world is one’s spirit … the leavings of me, murking up the atmosphere, smogging the air, sprinkling a sort of mist over things so perhaps they will twinkle a bit.” So to oysters and a twinkle, happy celebrations with friends, family and food. Here is the recipe I am going to try for Christmas eve.

My Christmas Eve Oyster Stew

I want to top with parsley and a few dots of Tabasco for Christmas flair

  1. For fried leeks
    • 2 large trimmed leeks
    • 4 tbsp light olive oil
  2. For soup
    • 1 1/2 cups shucked small oysters (6 dozen) with 1 1/2 cups of their liquor (if necessary, add enough bottled clam juice to bring total to 1 1/2 cups)
    • 2 medium chopped leeks
    • 2 large baking potatoes, or potatoes of your choice
    • 1 teaspoon salt
    • 3 tablespoons unsalted butter
    • 3 1/2 cups water
    • 1 cup half-and-half
    • Pinch of cayenne