Christmas comes once a year and for the Spencer family of Lynchburg, Virginia, Christmas means oysters. Oyster stew, oyster cakes, but most importantly, fried oysters whipped up in my family’s Fry Daddy Jr. After the morning festivities, the Fry Daddy Jr. is removed from hibernation behind cereal boxes in our pantry. Pounds of shucked oysters are fried up as quickly as possible in this small fryer. Holding four cups of oil and standing less than a foot tall, it cooks six to eight oysters per batch. I am not entirely sure why we never purchased a larger one, but firing up that fryer is a family Christmas Day ritual. Although we moved away from Virginia, we know that when we call one another on Christmas we will hear the background sounds of the Spencer household frying oysters. The fryer keeps us connected with family despite long distances.
The Christmas frying tradition descends from my paternal grandparents, John “Kip” Spencer III and Dorothy Carroll Spencer, who hosted the annual oyster feast every year in their Lynchburg home. Christmas day in the Virginia piedmontwas always a family affair. Every year aunts, uncles, and cousins gathered at Grandma and Granddaddy Spencer’s home for presents and, of course, oysters. The patio of their home echoed with crackles and pops. And, I was always underfoot hoping I could taste the first Christmas fried oyster of the year.
The original Fry Daddy Jr. was a birthday gift to my father, Andy Spencer, from my mother, Mary Reed Spencer, shortly after they married. My mother hoped to help my father continue the fried oyster tradition in their new home. The original Fry Daddy Jr. broke soon after it was bought, so my parents purchased a nearly identical replacement. The new fryer was lovingly dubbed “Fry Baby” in homage to the brand. For the longest time, Fry Baby was rarely used because Granddaddy always prepared the oysters in his deep fryer when I was young. In 1996, when Granddaddy passed, my uncle, John “Jay” Spencer IV, and Dad took over the oyster frying─ sometimes at Grandma and Granddaddy’s home and sometimes at ours, only a few minutes away.
In 1998, our family moved to Atlanta. I realized family Christmas in Lynchburg might end. As a seven year-old I wasn’t sure what all this meant, but I knew I did not relish the se nse of loss. By wintertime I had come to like Atlanta, my adopted hometown, but the real test would be Christmas. Could it be the same without the whole family around? I remember waking on Christmas morning, far earlier than any other day of the year, and rushing out of my bedroom to see the tiny Fry Baby on our kitchen counter. At that moment, I knew Atlanta Christmas was going to be okay. Despite the small size of our fryer and the absence of our extended family, we maintained our yearly tradition.
Frying with Andy Spencer:
In the Spencer family, oysters are served simply. Oysters have a distinct and almost aggressive flavor and texture that, while perfectly salty and slimy to me, can overwhelm even the most adventurous eaters who spend Christmas with the Spencers. A little lemon juice and cocktail sauce, however, go a long way. Of course, fried is our preferred method of preparation. And, they are served in an oyster stew. As a child, I never liked the stew because the slippery texture of the oysters was not hidden by any golden breading. In recent years I have grown to appreciate the stew’s simplicity.
The oyster frying process is sacred in our family. We fry the oysters as a mid-morning meal, and they are the star of the day, I suppose right behind Jesus, whose nativity we celebrate. After opening presents and talking to our scattered family on the phone, we begin. My dad does most of the cooking, but occasionally my brother, George and I lend a hand. While my mom works on the stew, Dad begins his preparations. Dressed in his sweatpants, an old t-shirt, fuzzy slippers, and one of our many humorous aprons, he creates an oyster assembly line. First the shucked oysters are floured, then dredged in a beaten egg and water mixture. The wet morsels are then coated with cracker meal. In small groups he drops the breaded morsels into the beloved Fry Daddy, Jr. and a hot bath of peanut oil. Our family of four mows through a few pounds of oysters in a single sitting, so to cook them all can take what feels like hours…but is probably only ninety minutes from start to finish.
My family created our own Christmas by transforming our new home into what we remembered and loved about our Virginia Christmases. While other objects I associate with family Christmas, like the electric train around Grandma’s tree, are no longer a part of the festivities, the delicious scent of oil in the fryer and the sight of paper towels saturated with grease evokes childhood holiday memories. I have not yet learned all the secrets of oyster cooking, but when I make my own home one of my first purchases will be a small fryer. Traditions link our family no natter how scattered we may find ourselves. The Fry Daddy Jr. connects us across many miles as no phone call can. We don’t need to be in southern Virginia to enjoy our favorite family tradition. It’s in the Fry Baby.
Recipes from the back porch kitchen of Andy Spencer:
Very hot oil─peanut oil (very Virginia)
Medium Chesapeake Bay oysters─not too big
Oysters in flour─put flour in a large heavy paper bag (like you used to get at the grocery store)
Add 12 oysters at a time and shake the bag to coat the oysters (Mary Ella used to do chicken that way)
Dredge oysters in egg and water mixture─mostly eggs and just a little water to make it more liquid and go further (a very southern Depression Era move, child of a child of the Depression, you know)
Roll oysters in fine cracker meal
Place oysters on a rack for drying
Drop a bit of stray oyster coating in fat fryer to be sure oil is hot
Lower oysters into very hot oil
Fry Baby can handle about 6-8 oysters at a time
Cook until desired brownness
Place on paper towel on cookie sheet in warm oven while cooking rest of oysters
Heavy soup pan or pot
1/2 stick of salted butter (the real thing)
salt and pepper
Old Bay seasoning
Heat butter on medium heat
Add oysters (1 can or more)
Be sure to include all the “oyster juice”
Cook oysters until edges curl
Add Milk and heat slowly until steam comes off the stew─DO NOT BOIL
Add more butter
Stir frequently while heating
Add salt, pepper, and Old Bay as desired
Keep on warm with top
Serve novices and young children “liquor” stew without oysters (they won’t know that there are supposed to be any in it, which leaves more oysters for you)
Serve real oyster stew connoisseurs oysters and all