This Oyster Stuffing Is How I Honor Black History on Thanksgiving
I make this family staple to pay homage to those who came before me.
As told to Laura Denby
The holiday season can be a blur. One minute, the leaves are changing color and the next minute you’re setting the table for Thanksgiving and shopping for holiday gifts. Throughout the hustle and bustle of the season, it’s easy to forget the true meaning of the holidays. Thanksgiving is a time for us to honor our heritage over a delicious meal with family and friends, and that’s why it’s so important to incorporate dishes that remind us of where we come from. More importantly, it’s a time to give thanks for the present and reflect on the struggles and successes of those who came before us. After all, every recipe is better with a story behind it.
I learned to cook by honoring (and combining) my mother’s Filipino roots and my grandmother’s Jamaican roots: two regions whose culinary identities are distinct, unique and bursting with flavor. My family and I honor our nation’s history, along with our family’s heritage on Thanksgiving by incorporating oysters into dishes like a traditional cornbread stuffing. The creole flavors mixed with mid-Atlantic seafood is a surprising spin on the traditional stuffing, and notably more flavorful. What makes it even more special is that it pays homage to the struggle of Black oyster farmers in the colonial era — most notably Thomas Downing, the “Oyster King of New York.”
The son of slaves, Thomas Downing first learned to farm oysters on Chincoteague Island in Virginia, where he grew up. After making his way to New York City in the 1800s, Downing started farming his own oysters and became known as one of the most venerable oystermen in the city. He opened an oyster bar in the financial district, where he served Manhattan’s elite in an elegant and opulent space. Beneath the sophisticated tavern, the oyster bar also doubled as a stop on the underground railroad, where slaves seeking freedom could stop for refuge. After Downing’s passing in 1866, the New York City Chamber of Commerce closed its doors for the day so its members could attend his funeral and pay their respects, a relatively unheard-of act during a time of such severe racial segregation.
I’m innately inspired by the way food connects us all as human beings, because hospitality is in my blood. I see restaurants as a refuge, and Downing's story is one that I can relate to, particularly during the holidays. Not only is Cast-Iron Oyster and Cornbread Stuffing a way to honor Downing's legacy; it’s also the perfect way to use leftover cornbread, and incorporates Tasso ham for a smoky, spicy, Cajun-style dressing. Not to mention, it’s a totally approachable recipe. If you don’t have some of the ingredients, no problem! Swap them out for whatever is seasonal and local to you. The leeks, thyme and sage bring a distinct earthiness, and the crispy consistency of the stuffing makes a great addition to leftover-stuffed sandwiches the next day, which is my favorite part of any Thanksgiving meal.
Food tradition is so important for family; it’s a way to tell a story about yourself and your heritage that can be passed down. This year, if you’re looking to incorporate a bit more history and culture to your Thanksgiving table, try my Cast-Iron Oyster and Cornbread Stuffing — it’s a meaningful way to reflect on the past while still enjoying the present.
Jerome Grant is a James Beard Award-nominated chef and recipe developer. In 2008, he worked as Sous Chef at Mitsitam Cafe at the National Museum of the American Indian, and in 2016, Jerome was named inaugural Executive Chef at Sweet Home Café at the National Museum of African American History and Culture, which received a James Beard Award nomination for “Best New Restaurant” in 2017. Jerome's Filipino, Caribbean and Jamaican roots are reflected in many of the dishes he creates. He currently works as Corporate Chef for Dacha Beer Garden and Jackie Restaurant in Washington, D.C.