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Oyster Ice Cream: A Thanksgiving Tradition Mark Twain Could Get Behind

Nov 22, 2011
Originally published on November 23, 2011 11:54 am

Chef José Andrés grew up in Spain, but he has embraced Thanksgiving as a window into American history. That's why the guests at his Thanksgiving dinner might be starting off with oyster ice cream.

Oyster ice cream was a favorite of Mark Twain's, Andrés explains on NPR's Tell Me More, and it shows up in Tom Sawyer. Now, the dish is featured at America Eats Tavern in Washington, D.C. That's a collaboration between Andrés and the National Archives, and is designed to explore classic American dishes and how they have changed through history.

Oyster ice cream may taste less peculiar than it sounds. The base is made by gently heating oysters and cream, "almost like you make the oyster stew," Andrés says in his accented English. "You will get that cream, with the beautiful oyster salty, briny flavor." Run it through an ice cream freezer, and he says the result is "this amazing oyster-flavored ice cream" – one that's savory, not sweet.

Oysters hold a prominent place in American food history, as NPR's Eliza Barclay has reported. New York City was Oyster Central in the 18th and 19th centuries, with oysters sold on street corners and at huge open markets. A dish of oyster ice cream topped with a single raw oyster on the half-shell "would be an amazing snack to start your Thanksgiving celebration," Andrés says. "That might seem very modern, but it is almost 200 years old."

Andrés also finds inspiration in Amelia Simmons, who wrote what is considered the first American cookbook, American Cookery, in 1798. "Many books at the time were copies of English textbooks. But she put her own take on those recipes," he says.

He is charmed by her "pompkin" pudding, a precursor of the pumpkin pie made with cream, eggs, nutmeg, ginger and mace. It's not unusual to see ingredients persevere through history, Andrés says. "But technique allows us to make recipes that are lighter, more flavorful."

Simmons also describes how to use cranberries to make a tart, rather than the traditional cranberry sauce. "The recipe is very simple, only three lines," Andrés says. Simmons strained the cranberries into a thick sauce, put them in a crust, and popped it into the oven.

And even though Andrés is a fan of turkey, he won't be serving it this Thanksgiving.

"This year, I'm making a baby roasted pig," Andrés says. "Traditions are there to be kept. But also traditions are there to be created. So I don't want to feel guilty, but sometimes, [it's] not only honoring the tradition of turkey but bringing new foods and items to the Thanksgiving menu."

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TONY COX, HOST:

This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Tony Cox. Michel Martin is away. Coming up, the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade is set to march through Manhattan tomorrow. Diverse performers from all around the nation will bring that huge celebration to life. We'll hear how it all comes together. That's in just a few moments.

But first, many of us will also be coming together around the dinner table, feasting on turkey, stuffing, mashed potatoes and plenty more. This year, we've decided to check out some of the historical dishes of Thanksgiving.

Who better to educate us than award-winning chef, Jose Andres? This year, he was named Outstanding Chef by the James Beard Foundation, a nonprofit that celebrates America's culinary diversity. He leads restaurants in Los Angeles, Las Vegas and here in the nation's capital. One of his newest ventures, America Eats Tavern in Washington, a joint venture with the National Archives that serves food with stories rooted in American history.

And Chef Andres joins us now. Welcome.

JOSE ANDRES: Thank you very much.

COX: You know, I have been thinking about eating ever since I knew that you were coming in to sit down here in Studio 4B with me, so we're going to talk about some food.

ANDRES: Let's do it.

COX: All right. When we think of this holiday, turkey often comes to mind, but you say seafood actually played a huge part of the first Thanksgiving. Why was that and how was it usually served?

ANDRES: Seafood, oysters, fish, shrimp was very much available to the people that the Pilgrims found when they arrived to America. So me, I love to talk about tradition and we can be talking about the traditional Thanksgiving, but I always love to do the contrary. I love to say, yes, we're going to be doing traditional, but we are going to be rescuing recipes that I believe they've been forgotten through American history.

One of the most fascinating recipes is a shrimp cocktail in grapefruit.

COX: Shrimp cocktail in grapefruit?

ANDRES: We need to understand, in the South, we had a lot of shrimp and, in late 1800s, early 1900s called for grapefruits. We had a lot. Florida, Texas. They were planted by Italians and the Spanish immigrants...

COX: Right.

ANDRES: ...already over 100 years before, so this is a simple recipe; calls for a French dressing. You're going to add your olive oil, vinegar, paprika, grapefruit, sherry and simply shrimp boil. This is a cocktail that has disappeared and I would love these shrimp cocktail in grapefruit recipe to come back.

COX: These are fascinating.

ANDRES: But, you know, we need to remember two things. One, that, yes, the turkey is an American dish and now that we are talking about Thanksgiving, we need to remember that, actually, Benjamin Franklin wanted to make sure that the turkey become the symbol of America and he wanted to make sure that the turkey and not the bald eagle become the true symbol of America as a nation.

COX: Really? I did not know that.

ANDRES: And I'm mentioning Benjamin Franklin because if we're celebrating for Thanksgiving, why not honor him? I'm doing a drink that himself wrote. Milk punch where he used the whey, he used lemon and he used brandy to make an unbelievable punch.

COX: Did they call it that? Milk punch?

ANDRES: Yeah. The milk punch. And this was in a letter that was written on October 11th, 1763 in a letter that he wrote to his friend, James Bowdoin. And fascinating to me that Benjamin Franklin himself already was involved in creating the bounty of what America has become over the centuries.

COX: I wonder what that tasted like?

ANDRES: You have to think something very silky, very smooth, with a beautiful touch of maze and nice acidity. Very refreshing. I will start on Thanksgiving with this amazing recipe by Benjamin Franklin.

COX: Oh, that's great. If you're just joining us, you're listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Tony Cox. We are talking about food, obviously, if you've been paying any attention at all, and we are speaking with renowned Spanish chef Jose Andres. He joins us just ahead of that big Thanksgiving celebration.

Let's talk about dessert. What kind of dessert historically is associated with Thanksgiving?

ANDRES: OK. So if we go back to desserts, I'm going to recommend people to kind of rescue one of the most powerful cookbooks in America. This was written in 1798 by a woman called Amelia Simmons. She wrote a book called "American Cookery." Many books at the time were kind of copies of English textbooks, but very much she put her own take on those recipes. And she has one called pompkin pudding, pumpkin written with an O. Pompkin pudding. And this, you could say, was the great-grandfather of what we recognize today as the pumpkin pie.

COX: Really? Did it taste the same?

ANDRES: You could say it tastes the same. You could say that probably the pumpkins back then were better if want to dream. But you know, the ingredients were simple with some cream, with some eggs, nutmeg, ginger, mace; very much as what it is today. The fascinating thing is that, over two, three hundred years, recipes, ingredients are kind of the same, but technique allows us to make recipes that are lighter, more flavorful.

COX: You know, one of the things always associated with Thanksgiving these days is cranberries.

ANDRES: Yeah.

COX: Was there something associated with cranberries?

ANDRES: In her same book, you'll find a recipe which calls for cranberries, a real American ingredient, but actually, she made a tart from berries that, today, are associated very much used now to make a relish, or to make as a sauce.

COX: Right.

ANDRES: She had this very simple, beautiful tart where she only recommended to kind of strain the cranberries, make them into kind of a thick sauce. And the recipe is very simple. It's almost three lines, like many of the recipes of the time, and she will ask put it inside a crust and baked. And this is a fun recipe to recreate to make sure we don't forget over 200 years, old recipes.

COX: You know, this stuff that you're talking about - no pun intended - in terms of stuffing is really interesting, although a lot of it goes back historically. So let's talk about what some of us could do this Thanksgiving. Wherever you're going to be, I'm crashing the door, just to let you know. I'm going to be there. So what are we going to eat?

ANDRES: I love oysters. We love to do something very simple. For example, in the Mary Randolph's cookbook, "The Virginia Housewife," she calls for oysters and mutton. And I will tell everyone you can do oysters and lamb and follow her simple recipe, but we need to understand that oysters were very important in the 1600s, 1700s. New York very much was exporting oysters to the colonies like pickled oysters, but there's one recipe I love, which is oyster ice cream.

COX: Get out.

ANDRES: Oyster ice cream that become one of the favorites, actually, of Mark Twain's and it's mentioned in "Tom Sawyer" and those are ice cream with the simple oyster open, which is something that might seem very modern, but it's almost 200 years old. Will be an amazing snack to begin your Thanksgiving celebration.

COX: That wouldn't be sweet, though, would it?

ANDRES: It wouldn't be sweet because the way they used to make it was almost like when you make the oyster stew that today is so popular in so many parts in the Northwest. That cream that you will have making the oyster stew - you will get that cream with a beautiful oyster salty, briny flavor and you will put it in the freezer and you will put it through the ice cream oil machine cracking up with the salt and the ice and you will have this amazing oyster flavor ice cream that will be as much savory as it could be sweet, but in the times, it was savory.

COX: So we're having oyster ice cream when you fix Thanksgiving dinner. What else are we having?

ANDRES: This year, while I have many different turkeys in my home because, every year, I buy them because, for me, it's a great gift to give to good friends and employees. And I have many varieties, the red bourbon, the black Mexican, etc., etc.

This year, I'm making a baby roasted pig.

COX: Really?

ANDRES: I am. So I hope I'm not breaking anyone's dreams because I do believe traditions are great, but I want to believe that - why we don't eat turkey other times of the year and why it only has to be on Thanksgiving? Traditions are there to be kept, but also traditions are there to be created, so I don't want to feel guilty by, sometimes, not only honoring the tradition of turkey. I'm bringing new foods and new items to the Thanksgiving menu.

COX: Absolutely. Jose Andres is an award-winning chef, restaurateur and passionate, obviously, advocate for food and hunger issues. He was kind enough to join us here in our Washington, D.C. studios. One more question for you. What time should I be there?

ANDRES: Five o'clock.

COX: Oh, I'll be there.

ANDRES: OK.

COX: Thank you. And happy Thanksgiving.

ANDRES: Happy Thanksgiving to you and to all in America. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.