The 15th anniversary of the death of Andy Benson, Jr. recently passed, and I am staring into another holiday season without him. My father loved holiday traditions, and he was the glue that held our family together. Shamefully, those of us who live to tell the tales of him let our relationships fray and we drifted for a while, but we are working to rebuild. For this I am deeply grateful.
Never one to skip a dinner party (or any meal at all for that matter), Daddy comes along family gatherings and holiday potlucks in casserole dishes filled with his justifiably famous Creole Oyster Dressing.
As a child in New Orleans, there was a cult following for my father’s oyster dressing, the preparation for which was arduous and time consuming, due in part to the number of people depending on the stuff to make their holiday meals complete as well as my perfectionist father’s refusal to use a food processor to help chop the seasonings. He insisted that the dressing produced by modern conveniences was substandard due to their tendency to liquefy, rather than chop, the ingredients. Besides, he was masterful with his t10-inch chef’s knife, and as a child I could sit for hours watching him work his art on piles of onions, bell peppers, celery, and garlic, so it was no big deal to watch him plow his way through 30 cups of seasoning.
As the years rolled by, it became increasingly difficult for him to stand for hours on end chopping ingredients for the dressing. The masses were alarmed by the possibility of a holiday dinner without Andy Benson’s oyster dressing, so he pressed me, his youngest child, into service.
I inherited Oyster Dressing Duty in 1995 when I was 27.
In the beginning, I was required to collect the ingredients, bring them to his home and stand there chopping until my head was swimming and tears flowed for my face from onion fumes as he sat at my childhood post at the kitchen counter watching me. He was not admiring my methodical art form as I had once admired his. He was critiquing me. I would not have been surprised had the man hauled out a tape measure to confirm the uniformity of the fine dice I was required to produce. With the misery of 30 cups of seasoning behind me, he would gather the fruits, or rather vegetables, of my labor and assemble the massive quantities of dressing required to satisfy his groupies. He got the “fun” part, cooking the dressing. He also continued to collect the accolades for the fabulous dressing that had become a joint effort.
This routine continued until 2002, when my beloved father suffered a debilitating stroke and the full mantle of responsibility for making the dressing fell upon my shoulders. Even after my father died, I continued to chop the seasoning by hand. This took hours and hours and led my husband, Andrew, to take pity on me. In 2008, for my 40th birthday he presented me with a KitchenAid food processor and that year, for the first time ever, I cheated, and I have done it ever since.
I am a knife-wielding woman. I have my father’s old knives as well as my own collection of Wusthof and Hammer Stahls. That said, when I escaped from chopping 30 cups of seasoning at the onset of each holiday season, I felt as though I had made a successful escape from Hell.
As is my custom, this weekend I will again haul out the 24-quart cast-iron Dutch oven (it is more like a cauldron, really) necessary to make gallons of my dad’s oyster dressing and I will proceed to whirl my way through the mountain in about 15 minutes. The dressing is fabulous as ever, due largely to the quality of the food processors we now enjoy over those available in the ’70s when my father first deemed them unworthy. Know how to “ride” the pulse button is an indispensable skill when facing the task.
So, like my family, this tradition has evolved.
But I would revert to chopping all of that seasoning by hand if I could do it once again with my dad in the kitchen. For him, I would gladly chop through the mountain of seasoning for the pleasure of once again turning it all over to him to assemble into his masterpiece. He could take the credit and I would be happy to let him do it. At the end of the day, it is really all about the people.
Andy Benson’s Creole Oyster Dressing
Yes, the recipe calls for margarine. Do not substitute butter. In have tried it and it simply does not work.) Double, triple, or quadruple recipe, as necessary.
Makes about six 1/2 cups servings
- 1 pint Gulf oysters in their liquor
- 1 cup cold water
- 8 tablespoons (1 stick) margarine
- 1 1/2 cups chopped onions
- 1 cup chopped celery
- 1 cup chopped bell peppers
- Seasoning Mix (recipe follows)
- 1 teaspoon minced garlic
- 3 bay leaves
- 1 cup fine, dry breadcrumbs
- 2 tablespoons unsalted butter, softened
- 1/4 cup thinly sliced scallions, green parts only
Combine the oysters and water; stir and refrigerate for at least one hour. Strain and reserve oysters and oyster liquor separately in refrigerator until ready to use.
Preheat oven to 350º F.
Melt 4 tablespoons margarine in a large skillet, preferably cast iron, over high heat. Add 3/4 cup onions, 1/2 cup celery and 1/2 cup bell peppers; sauté over high heat until onions start to caramelize but are not burned, about 8 minutes, stirring frequently.
When onions are browned add 2 teaspoons seasoning mix and garlic to skillet. Reduce heat to medium-low; continue cooking for 5 minutes, stirring occasionally, until garlic is fragrant, and the mixture has come together in a mass. Add the remaining 3/4 cup onions, 1/2 cup celery and 1/2 cup bell peppers, 4 tablespoons margarine and bay leaves. Stir until margarine is melted; cook for 10 minutes, stirring frequently. Stir in reserved oyster water and cook over high heat for 10 minutes, stirring frequently. Stir in remaining seasoning mix and enough breadcrumbs to make a moist but not runny dressing. Remove from heat. Stir in the drained oysters.
Spoon the dressing into an ungreased 8x8x2-inch baking dish; bake uncovered for 30 minutes. Remove from oven and discard bay leaves. Swirl in butter and green onions. Makes 3 cups (1/2 cup serving per person
- 1/2 teaspoon sea salt
- 1/2 teaspoon cayenne pepper
- 1/2 teaspoon sweet paprika
- 1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
- 1/4 teaspoon onion powder
- 1/4 teaspoon dried oregano leaves
- 1/4 teaspoon dried thyme leaves
Combine all ingredients in a small bowl.
That’s it from me. As you prepare for the holiday season do so with an open mind and be kind to one another.