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Deuel County Oyster Tradition

Jaci Stofferahn of Watertown handles oyster stew like a pro.

In the gathering twilight of a Deuel County evening, lights wink in the fields. Rows of corn and soybeans have already been reduced to stubble, but farmers toil in their huge machines, bringing in the harvest. Trucks hug the edge of the dusty gravel roads, waiting for their next load. 

On one cool Saturday night in October, traffic on the gravel lane leading to Bemis Holland Presbyterian Church is a little heavier than usual, as hungry folks file in for the church’s annual oyster stew harvest supper. Entering the tiny vestibule, we’re greeted by a pair of men manning the moneybox, one with a harmonica in his hand.

Bud Ruesink carries his mouth organ everywhere — it gives him something to do with bits of free time. If you catch him at a quiet moment and ask politely, maybe he’ll favor you with a rendition of “Sweet Hour of Prayer” or another old hymn.

The narrow room is lined with baked goods — extra treats to bring home if you’re somehow not full by the end of the night. At the far end, watch for Bemis Holland’s pastor, Terry Drew. He’ll spend the evening bounding up and down the narrow stairs, shepherding groups of diners into the basement to clusters of empty seats at long tables. It’s a workout for the minister, who has served the small congregation for 17 years. “I feel it for several days afterward,” he admits. Drew doubles as greeter and performer on oyster stew night; when the dining area is full, he plays guitar for people waiting their turn upstairs in the church.

Harvest dinner night is busy, but Bud Ruesink of Castlewood finds time to play a song.

Back in the packed basement, our group is seated. Waitresses navigate through the tables to the kitchen, where they fetch large, piping-hot bowls full of oyster stew or chili while platters of ham sandwiches, scalloped potatoes, pickles, Jell-O and cake circulate among the diners. If you’re an ornery member of the congregation, eat carefully — your oysters might be accompanied by a friendly prank. “Certain individuals get a rock or a shell in their bowl of soup. All the waitresses have to do is say, ‘So and so is here,’ and in it goes,” the busy soup servers told us. “I think they’d be disappointed if we didn’t do it.” 

The meal has been a bright spot on the Deuel County social calendar for more than 130 years. Many of the church’s early records are lost, but it is believed that the harvest dinner was first served in 1883, just a few years after Dutch families from Wisconsin founded the church in William TeGantvoort’s dugout. Chicken was the main item at the church’s earliest dinners, but after about five years, the menu changed to oyster stew.

At first blush, oyster stew seems like an odd choice for landlocked Dakota, and, although oysters are raised on the southwest coast of the Netherlands, oyster stew is not a Dutch tradition. “Oysters were one of these early luxuries made possible by railroad,” says Catherine Lambrecht, president of the Greater Midwest Foodways Alliance. “People would order them by the barrel for the holidays.” Oysters couldn’t be shipped to Dakota in the hottest months without spoiling, so they became a cold weather treat, often served up in milky, sea-kissed broth and paired with fat, crunchy little crackers.

"It's been kind of a life sentence for any and all related," says LuAnn Strait (left), pictured with Kolt Ruesink.

At current prices, oyster stew is indeed a luxury. Sixteen gallons of oysters go into one Bemis-sized batch of oyster stew, and in 2015, a gallon of oysters cost $95. Ardy’s Bakery in Clear Lake supplies the buns, while the nearby Sunrise Dairy donates milk and butter. Other supplies come from Castlewood. Even with the donated items, it’s an expensive celebration. In some years, the church doesn’t quite break even, but tradition is tradition … and it tastes good, too.

Like many country congregations, the future of Bemis Holland Presbyterian Church and its October celebration is uncertain. Just nine people attended service on the Sunday before the harvest dinner. But anyone with ties to the church is recruited to help serve. “It’s been kind of a life sentence for any and all related,” says LuAnn Strait of Watertown, which is 17 miles northwest of Bemis. Many credit LuAnn’s mother, Tommie Greenfield, and aunts Phyllis Hoitsema and Joyce Ruesink as being driving forces behind the dinner’s survival. The strength of those family ties shows on oyster stew night, in the warm smiles and easy laughter of servers and attendees alike.

“I had three things to go to today — a wedding, a zombie walk and this. Mom said, ‘You choose what you go to.’ Here I am,” Renee Ruesink says. “You don’t say no to Mom.”

If you go: The 2018 harvest supper is Saturday, Oct. 20. The meal starts at 4 p.m. and continues until the last customer is full. Tickets are sold at the door. Take the Castlewood/Clear Lake exit off Interstate 29, heading east. Take the first left, following the curved gravel road north for 2 miles, then turn right and go about another mile. The church will be on your right. For GPS users, the church’s address is 46648 180th St., Clear Lake, S.D.


 

Oyster Stew

 

1 gallon fresh oysters

3 gallons milk

1/2 pound butter

1 tablespoon black pepper

2 tablespoons salt

 

Heat a heavy container a little and rub a small amount of butter over bottom and sides. Add milk and heat to boiling point, then add oysters. Heat to boiling again or until oysters float, then add salt, pepper and butter. Remove from heat and stir frequently to cool. Reheat and serve. Feeds approximately 30 people. Note: Never cover hot stew when cooling in refrigerator.

Editor’s Note: This story is revised from the September/October 2016 issue of South Dakota Magazine. To order a copy or to subscribe, call (800) 456-5117.

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