Jim Bradshaw: Thank Morgan if you like oysters in your dressing
Oyster and cornbread dressing is a staple of the holiday season in south Louisiana, and we can thank Charles Morgan, the man who made millions from railroads and steamships, for helping out, at least a little, with the oysters.
I don’t know if he ever ate one. He was a native of Connecticut and seldom came south.
He operated steamships along the Atlantic coast in the middle 1800s and brought two of his ships to Brashear City (as Morgan City was then known) to try to keep them out of harm’s way during the Civil War.
At the time, the New Orleans, Opelousas, and Great Western Railroad was the only one operating in south Louisiana, and it ran for only 80 miles between Algiers (across the river from New Orleans) to Berwick Bay.
But Morgan saw possibilities in that link.
If he could create a regular steamship trade between Brasher City and Gulf ports in Texas and Mexico, he could use the trains to carry goods and people to his boats, avoiding expensive docking fees at New Orleans, eliminating the time-consuming trip to and from the mouth of the river, and all the while making money for the boats and the railroad.
The New Orleans & Opelousas had been badly damaged during the war, and its owners had nearly gone bankrupt building it in the first place.
The war did them in.
Morgan bought the line for a little over $2 million in 1869, renamed it Morgan’s Louisiana & Texas Railroad, and began to put his plan into action.
In August 1869, Brashear City gave Morgan permission to build a wharf into Berwick Bay capable of handling steamships and to build a double railroad line to get to it.
Two years later, in 1871, he began dredging a deeper channel to the Gulf, popularly called “Morgan’s Ditch,” to allow his biggest steamboats to reach his wharves.
By 1873, seventeen Morgan Line steamships were regularly meeting Morgan’s Louisiana and Texas trains at Brashear City, and he was adding dollars by the bagful to his already considerable fortune.
The other thing that Morgan’s improvements did was to open access to bayside sites for oyster canneries.
His grant from Brashear City not only allowed them, it encouraged them as long as all oyster shells were donated to the town to be used to build up the edge of the bay.
That wasn’t the beginning of the industry, of course.
Middens (big shell piles) still exist as proof that coastal Louisiana’s earliest inhabitants ate oysters aplenty, and the development of an organized industry in the state is usually dated to the middle 1840s, when Croatian emigres began harvesting oysters below New Orleans.
But it was a good and profitable idea to open factories on Berwick Bay, and one that gave oyster packing a substantial boost. In 1887 the Lehmann factory, the biggest one on the bay, shucked and shipped 300,000 oysters every week.
Just one customer bought more than 2 million in December 1886 alone.
To Mr. Morgan’s delight, almost all of those oysters were shipped in his boats and rail cars.
In 1890, in a grant for another oyster house, the town council of what had then been renamed Morgan City officially expressed its desire “to promote & encourage the growth of the oyster and fish industry.”
Apparently, the politicians and the entrepreneurs either recognized or began a trend.
It’s hard to tell which came first, a national appetite for oysters or the factories to supply them, but both grew with gusto in the late 1800s.
Looking through my collection of old cookbooks, I agree with anthropologist Susan Koolman about their popularity about that time.
She did a study of dishes popular in the Midwestern U.S. in the late 1800s, and turned up recipes for fried oysters, broiled oysters, stewed oysters, escalloped oysters, fricasseed oysters, pickled oysters, oyster croquettes, oyster patties, oyster pie, oyster soup, oyster toast, oysters stuffed in turkey, oysters with scrambled eggs, and oysters with frog legs, among others.
All of those Midwestern dishes sound pretty good to me, but I’ll bet none were as good as the oyster dressing made by my Great Aunt Connie or an equal array of dishes made by cooks across south Louisiana — or, for that matter, as good as just eating them chilled on the half shell when properly sauced (the oyster, not the eater).
A collection of Jim Bradshaw’s columns, "Cajuns and Other Characters," is now available from Pelican Publishing. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or P.O. Box 1121, Washington LA 70589.