Champagne and oysters were a favorite combination to ring in the new year on the frontier. As odd as it may seem, oysters were a trendy food in America during the 19th century. While they were mainly imported from the East Coast, some came from Mexico and the West Coast.
In Grant, Nebraska, The Perkins County Herald advertised dances and oyster suppers to their subscribers. And in the beloved Little House on the Prairie series, author Laura Ingalls Wilder wrote that she had never tasted anything as good as "the sea-tasting hot milk with oysters at the bottom" when Ma, Pa and the three girls dined on oyster stew with neighbors on New Year's Day.
While it seems a little incongruent for pioneers to be dining on what we perceive as delicacies on the frontier, it was surprising to learn that during the late 1800s through the turn of the century, oysters were cheaper than meat, poultry or fish thanks to plentiful oyster beds all along the East Coast. Chicago, St. Louis, and other inland cities throughout the Midwest imported the mollusks from the east, then shipped them, usually by rail, to the western frontier in large barrels full of small tins packed in ice.
Oysters were used by ladies in Helena, Montana in 1875 to raise funds for the Catholic church. Held at the International Hall, they advertised "...refreshments, including oysters in every style will be served at all hours..."
Kansas City, Missouri, celebrated the arrival of 1891 in high style with oysters, champagne, and a snowstorm. As the wicked weather continued, one host treated guests to oysters in cream, ham basted in champagne sauce, lobster salad, Saratoga chips, Roman punch, ladyfingers, fruits, and nuts.
In 1892, San Franciscan residents ushered in the new year in style. Those who could afford to dine at the luxurious Palace Hotel feasted on turkey, chicken, ham, pressed meats, salad with fried oysters, asparagus on toast, artichokes with hollandaise sauce, and prime rib of beef. If they had left room for dessert, they could choose from English trifle, plum pudding with rum sauce, mincemeat, apple or pumpkin pie, and coconut cream sandwiches...and if that wasn't enough, they could end the meal with ices that included orange water, strawberry, and pistachio ice cream!
Although champagne in the mid-19th century could only come from France, winemakers from California were already creating some sparkling wines. German immigrant, Jacob Schram founded Schramsberg Vineyards on Diamond Mountain in Napa Valley, California in 1862.
Today, Schram, Cooks, and Korbel are still made in California. They were and still are wildly popular and well-known. In 1887, French champagne averaged about $30 a bottle...compare that to a miner's salary which was $4 per day!
The New Year's meal on the frontier was an occasion that looked to the future, where families welcomed neighbors and visitors, and perhaps mended fences and worked out (or forgot!) differences. It was a time to realize that a united front was certainly the most beneficial, both for individuals and for the community as a whole.
From our home to yours,
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