Oysters For Thanksgiving?
Gulf oysters for Thanksgiving? They’re available, but pricey
You can add Kim Vanderbrook’s name to the list of locals suffering from the new stress disorder that’s sweeping the Gulf Coast: holiday oyster anxiety, or HOA
“Thanksgiving without oyster dressing? It’s never happened. It’s unimaginable,” said Vanderbrook, a Covington resident who is preparing a traditional Thanksgiving meal for 30 people this year.
Her usual seafood supplier quoted her a price of $86 a gallon, which is how much she needs to make her grandmother’s revered dressing recipe for all her guests. Compared with what she paid last year for oysters, Vanderbrook said, “They’re twice as expensive.”
And then she said, in words that will sound like hyperbole to absolutely no one in Louisiana: “I’m having a crisis.”
Vanderbrook’s angst is shared by countless local home cooks in the throes of post-oil spill holiday meal planning. Oysters, the Gulf seafood most imperiled by the spill, are a tradition on thousands of local holiday tables.
“Everybody’s been stressing out all year over what they’re going to do for oyster dressing for Thanksgiving,” said James Breuehl, seafood manager for the Rouse’s chain of supermarkets. “Fortunately, we’ve been able to get a decent amount of inventory.”
Yes, oysters are available, said Mike Voisin of Motivatit Seafoods, a member of the Louisiana Oyster Task Force, but retail prices are up 20 percent to 50 percent from last fall. Expect spot shortages. His advice: If you usually wait until the Wednesday before Thanksgiving to buy oysters, better buy them on Monday or Tuesday this year.
“Be prepared by scoping out where you’re going to get them, rather than waiting,” Voisin said.
Gulf oysters are coming into the market from Texas, Mississippi and Alabama as well as Louisiana, Voisin said, adding that most of the Louisiana ones are coming from the Calcasieu Lake area near the Texas border.
“The oystermen want to make sure Louisiana and Gulf oysters are available for the holidays. There’s been a big push to make that happen,” he said.
Because oysters have been so scarce, pent-up demand and tradition will prompt many consumers to pay the higher prices, Voisin predicted. “Now that they’re available,” he said, “people don’t mind spending money on the holiday to eat.”
That would include Kourtnie Berry, a native New Orleanian who has never eaten cornbread dressing and doesn’t plan to do so this year. She makes her mother’s oyster dressing recipe, laden with crabmeat and shrimp.
“I’m going to still make it because it’s just something we do every year for Thanksgiving,” she said. With about $30 worth of crabmeat and the added oyster cost, she expects to spend around $50 to prepare a pan of dressing for her household this year, not counting the macaroni and cheese, dinner rolls, sweet potato pie, cranberry sauce and stuffed bell peppers and roasted turkey legs she will serve.
“We have to stay committed and we have to support our culture,” Berry said. “We can’t abandon that. No matter how much it costs, I’m going to do my dinners as long as the Lord provides me with money to do it.”
A spot check of several local supermarkets and seafood stores found oyster prices ranging from $7.99 to $16.99 per pint, with most costing more than $11.
“Customers are calling every day, all day long, asking about availability, quality and so on,” said Michael Foto, seafood manager at Dorignac’s. “I tell them the quality is pretty good, except for the fact we can’t get any unwashed. A few weeks ago the size was kind of smallish, but that’s improved a little bit.”
Bonnie Gros, of Danny and Bonnie’s Seafood in Marrero and Gretna, said her customers do not seem to be afraid of possible contamination from oil.
“I’m getting customers who want unwashed oysters,” said Gros, who is among the few offering the unwashed variety. “I was surprised.”
Earlier this season, Gros’ stores carried oysters from Alabama and Oregon, and she was worried about supplies during the holidays.
“But one of our guys in Port Sulphur just opened up,” she said. “My guy came through. He’s back at work.”
The supply of oysters “has been tight, but it just started loosening up in the last week or so,” agreed Bobby Esteves of Bobby’s Seafood in River Ridge.
Last week Esteves put up a sign asking customers to consider freezing oysters when they’re available “and some people have done that. We recommend to freeze them in zip-lock plastic bags, so they freeze faster and thaw faster,” he said.
Joe Zuppardo, one of the owners of Zuppardo’s Family Supermarket in Metairie, said the price of the oyster dressing made by their family recipe has gone up by $2 to $14.99 a quart. His retired cousin comes back at Thanksgiving to oversee the making of the traditional oyster dressing.
The price increases are forcing some families to change traditions by making seafood dishes without oysters for Thanksgiving.
Art Scott is taking even more extreme measures: He’s going with chicken.
Scott, of Folsom, usually prepares oyster soup for 40 friends and family members who gather in Destin during Thanksgiving week. He makes the soup from two gallons of liquefied oysters, then freezes and transports it. On site, he adds whole oysters from another gallon. Some of that gallon of oysters also gets fried along with the turkey, and some are eaten raw.
The phone has been disconnected for his usual oyster dealer on the north shore, Scott said.
“I know I can get oysters” elsewhere,” Scott said, “but they tend to be pasteurized and they don’t have that flavor. I wasn’t willing to get several sacks of oysters and open them myself. I’ve made a chicken dish I call BP Chicken, because we’re having it in place of the oyster stew we would have had if they hadn’t had the BP spill.
“These people are coming from North Carolina, Georgia and Florida, and this is my way of saying this oil spill is affecting us all.”
Vanderbrook said even though oysters are going to be pricey this year, she has to have them, even if she makes only a small pan of dressing for her group of 30. Usually, she and her mother spend a day making a double batch of oyster dressing, freezing half of it for Christmas. She doesn’t see that happening in 2010.
“(It) has made us thankful for all the years we’ve taken oysters for granted,” Vanderbrook said. “All of us, from birth, have enjoyed this. Sometimes paying a little bit more for something makes it more special.”