Oyster Ice Cream: The Enigma

This past week the curatorial and archeology departments came together to fulfill a long-held dream to make oyster ice cream. Many people asked “why?” others said “gross,” and many just shook their heads at our endeavor. But we are not easily put off by odd things in history. In fact, many of us seek them out, and oyster ice cream is indeed an oddity.

But before we dive into oysters and ice cream, there are some common myths that need to be cleared up. Oyster ice cream was not mentioned in The Adventures of Tom Sawyer. Dolley Madison did not serve it during her time in the White House. Oyster ice cream was not served at the “first” Thanksgiving. And finally, no, it was not George Washington’s favorite creamy treat; in fact, there is no connection between the two.[1]

Now that we are all on the same page, let us begin because this will be a long one.

History of Oysters

Oysters have been an easy and plentiful source of protein for humans since humans began. Prehistoric middens have been found in Australia containing the remnant of oysters used for food. They have been cultivated in Japan since at least 2000 BCE, and farming beds have been found in England since Roman times.[2]  The period between the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries was known as the Golden Age of Oysters as an increase in production made them extremely affordable for the working class in the US and Europe.[3][4]

Oyster Culture in the Bay of Spezia, Italy. Wikicommons

The invention of railroad transportation, canning, and refrigeration in the nineteenth century meant that oysters could now be shipped to markets all over Europe and the US. With the growth in production oysters became a cheap source of protein compared to the pricier meat, poultry and fish. Soon cities like New York City, Philadelphia, Baltimore and New Orleans became hubs of large oyster markets.[5]

Oyster stands in Fulton Market. Wikicommons

History of Ice Cream

The history of ice cream is a bit obscure, but ice cream, as we would know, was not possible until the discovery of the endothermic effect. The endothermic effect is where a substance, like cream, can be made to freeze by immersing or surrounding it with a mixture of ice and salt. Surrounding the cream with ice alone only chills but does not freeze the cream. Adding salt to ice lowers the melting point and draws the heat out of the cream causing it to freeze. This process was described as early as the thirteenth century by Arab medical historian Ibn Abu Usaybia.[6] But it wasn’t until the latter part of the seventeenth century that Europeans made soberts and ice cream using this process.[7]

The first English recipe for ice cream was published in Mrs. Mary Eale’s Receipts in London in 1718[8]. It was again published in our blog’s favorite cookbook, The Art of Cookery made Plain and Easy, by Hannah Glasse.[9]  How and when it came to America can be debated, but the Found Fathers regularly enjoyed it, with Washington, in the summer of 1790, purchasing around $200 worth of ice cream.[10]  This did not mean that the common man or woman in the street would necessarily enjoy the frozen treat as it was still time-consuming and expensive to make, needing ice to be cut and stored in winter for use in summer.

By the nineteenth century, developments in ice cream production, like the hand-cranked churn and industrial refrigeration, allowed manufacturers to produce ice cream on a large scale. Mass production lowered the cost of ice cream, and its popularity has soared ever since.   

So oyster ice cream, where did that come from?

The first and only recipe for oyster ice cream was printed in Mrs. Randolph’s book The Virginia Housewife, published in 1824. The Virginia Housewife was a singular work focused on Virginia produce and cooking practice. It became a model of nineteenth-century Southern American cookery.[11] But the publication of the recipe and the subsequent disappearance of it from history has confused historians for ages. No one is sure why oyster ice cream or where it would be served during dinner. Was it a dessert or a palette cleanser, was it served in place of soup? Was it popular, and if not, then why include it in the cookbook?

Those are questions that will probably never be answered. However, through our little experiment, we could at least answer a few, like is it easy to make, what does it taste like, and should this be revived for our modern palettes?   Note: we did pare down the recipe because, unfortunately, oysters are not as cheap as they once were, and we didn’t want gallons of oyster ice cream. 

First Step: we gathered our ingredients, including onions, cream, flour, eggs, and oysters

Second Step: shuck oysters. Luckily our fearless Archaeology Lab Manager and super fan of oysters, Mara Kaktins, and her deft hands were able to shuck the oysters in minutes.  

Third Step: We put 2/3 of the oysters in a boiling pot of water with ½ a yellow onion and let that simmer until the water was reduced by ½.

Fourth Step: Drain liquid, removing cooked oysters and chopped onions. Keep liquid and return it to the pot for the next Step.

Straining oysters and onion mix

Fifth Step: add the other 1/3 of the oysters to the liquid, along with a few tablespoons of flour, eggs, and cream. Simmer until it thickens but make sure not to burn or let it curdle.

Sixth Step: Sieve the creamy soup, remove the last of the oysters and put into glasses, and freeze for a few hours.

Last Step: remove from freezer and enjoy?        

Finished ice cream

Needless to say, after it was ready, we proceeded to run around the offices, and made everyone try a bit. Surprisingly, the reviews were mixed and pretty even, with slightly positive reviews at four and negative reviews at 4.   Positive reviews overwhelmingly stated that “it was not as bad as I thought it would be” or “it’s not awful but would be better as a warm soup.” The negative reviews were a little more critical, with “ew, it tastes like oysters” being the primary feedback. 

So what have we learned from this experiment? What were our conclusions? We discovered that it is easy, if expensive, to make. It requires neither specialty tools nor any particularly rare ingredients. We also concluded that it indeed tasted like frozen oyster soup, which many would have actually preferred. Not surprisingly, if the person did not like fresh oysters, they weren’t too keen on them frozen. But the most important question is, should this be revived for modern palettes? Does the world need oyster ice cream? I believe we answered that with a resounding “No.” It seemed to most that the ice cream basically ruined some delicious fresh oysters or spoiled a warm, comforting oyster stew.

Oyster ice cream will always be an enigma; it combines two things people enjoy: oysters and ice cream. But, while it may have worked for peanut butter and chocolate, sometimes two wonderful things just shouldn’t be mixed. And with that, we bid a fond farewell to oyster ice cream hoping that Mrs. Randolph’s The Virginia Housewife is the last we will ever see of this peculiar concoction.

Mara Kaktins, Archeologist & Lab Manager

Heather Baldus, Collections Manager

[1] Swerdloff, Alex. “The Long, Weird History and Mythology of Oyster Ice Cream.” Vice Magazine, November 18 2016.  https://www.vice.com/en/article/nzkewm/the-long-weird-history-and-mythology-of-oyster-ice-cream

[2] Unknown. “Oyster Industry in NSW”. https://web.archive.org/web/20151222111017/http://www.dpi.nsw.gov.au/fisheries/aquaculture/publications/oysters/industry/oyster-industry-in-nsw

[3] Swerdloff, Alex. “The Long, Weird History and Mythology of Oyster Ice Cream.” Vice Magazine, November 18 2016.  https://www.vice.com/en/article/nzkewm/the-long-weird-history-and-mythology-of-oyster-ice-cream

[4] Unknown. “The History of Oysters: Its Rise as a Delicacy and a Staple Food Beloved by Many.” Food Worth Writing For, July 31 2018. https://foodworthwritingfor.com/2018/07/31/the-history-of-oysters-its-rise-as-a-delicacy-and-a-staple-food-beloved-by-many/

[5] Ibid

[6] Goldstein, Darra. The Oxford Companion to Sugar and Sweets. Oxford University Press, 2015.

[7] Day, Ivan. Cooking In Europe 1650-1850. Greenwood Press. 2009.

[8] Eales, Mary. Mrs. Mary Eale’s receipts. J. Brindley. 1733

[9] Glasse, Hannah. The Art of Cookery, made plain and easy. A. Millar, and J. and R. Tonson, 1765

[10] Jacob, Matthew. “America’s Unwavering Passion for Ice Cream.” Huffington Post, May 25 2011. https://www.huffpost.com/entry/americas-unwavering-passi_b_652268

[11] Egerton, John. Southern Food: At Home, on the Road, in History. The University of North Carolina Press, 1987, pg 19