Advertisement
YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections

Thanksgiving Family Secrets : The Grays' Oyster Cult

November 17, 1994|SCHUYLER INGLE

I have to think that the Grays are responsible for my growing up with oyster stuffing on the table. My father's aunt Lilian married John Gray and moved from her home in Colville in northeast Washington state to a wheat farm in the Big Bend country of south central Washington. Washtucna was the nearest town. It's still there. And so too is the Gray farm though "young" Walt has retired and entered into a deal with the state Department of Natural Resources to put the land back into native grasses and encourage the deer and pheasant to thrive. It was Walt's grandfather, Walter Gray, who built the farm. And I suspect Walter Gray is responsible for oyster stuffing on the table come Thanksgiving. He was British, after all.

My father and his parents would drive from Colville to the Gray farm each Thanksgiving, an all day drive in the 1930s, a matter of a couple of hours today. They would stop in Spokane for hard rolls from the Davenport Hotel delicatessen and bakery and for Dungeness crab and Willipa oysters from the fish monger. Along the way they would cut a Christmas tree and tie it to the top of the car. If it had snowed by Thanksgiving, not an uncommon occurrence in eastern Washington, the going was precarious at best.

That first night of arrival would be taken up with eating the crab. The rolls and oysters were saved for the next day. John Gray would have visited a neighboring farm that morning and come home with a big turkey, now snoozing through its last turkey dreams out there in the chicken coop. Ingles and Grays would have eaten family style, passing big platters and bowls of food.

*

The next day the dining would be a bit more formal. The best linen, the best china, the best crystal, the best silver would all be laid out for the occasion. John Gray would stand at his end of the table. Lilian would walk in with a perfectly cooked bird. And then John Gray would both carve and serve from his place without getting a bit of meat or stuffing on the linen. He was a proud man.

And so too was his father, Walter. By the time I came along the only way I could distinguish John Gray from his brother Joe was that the one wheat farmer wore striped overalls while the other wore solid blue. They both fit right in on the sidewalks of Washtucna, squinting into the sun, sharing a bit of gossip. That is not how they started out, however. Old photos show young boys dressed in the style of Little Lord Fauntleroy, all curls, silks, and velvets. The two lads were packed off to a British boarding school for a proper education, though Walter relented soon enough. Instead, he shipped in young women tutors from Boston to teach his boys how to be businessmen and bankers.

Walter Gray came from a British farming family with land that stretches back to Norman times. It is still in the family and is still farmed. In fact, the Gray family is responsible for one of Britain's best hard apple ciders. Walter, however, was not the eldest son. So he shipped out to Canada, then found his way down into the Oregon Territory, eventually opening a dry goods business in Sprague, Wash. By the time he built his dream farm replete with Georgian outbuildings he had retired from business save for his position on the board of the bank.

*

Walter Gray had a profound stutter and was always found with either a pair of gloves in his hands, or a swagger stick. He would use these objects to beat out the time in the palm of his hand while he spoke. He looked and acted the part of an English gentleman and must have been woefully surprised to have raised two red necked American wheat farmers for sons. Two things stuck with the lads, however. One was Walter's imperious attitude, particularly toward hired hands, and the other had to do with the food on the table.

There were chutneys and all manner of oddball savory puddings, mint sauce with lamb (and this in a neighborhood where to this day hardly any farm family will eat lamb), Yorkshire pudding with roast beef, trifle. And some of these dishes passed on from Lilian to her sister Jessie, my grandmother, and from there down through my own family to me. Oyster stuffing was just one such dish, and it had to be served with the turkey.

If I correctly recall the flavors of my youth, the stuffing was often green with sage and strong enough to bring on a gag response in a young boy cajoled into giving it a taste. It took me years to develop a fondness for oysters. And then Sharon Kramis turned up with this variation on the oyster stuffing theme, the original recipe coming from Heck Brown, Larry Brown's father. The sage is light. The oysters whisper of the ocean. And the hazelnuts somehow create a magical, flavorful bridge between shellfish and turkey meat.

Walter Gray aside, I can't imagine a Thanksgiving without oyster stuffing.

*

This is an adaptation of HECK Brown's oyster stuffing, printed in " Northwest Bounty , " by Schuyler Ingle and Sharon Kramis.

OYSTER AND HAZELNUT STUFFING

Turkey giblets

1 cup water

Advertisement
Los Angeles Times Articles
|
|
|