A Year-Round Guide to Franklin and Nantahala

It’s curious how some things take on a life of their own. We didn’t mean to start a holiday tradition, but maybe that’s how some of the best holiday traditions

Rosemary and Goat Cheese Strata

It’s curious how some things take on a life of their own. We didn’t mean to start a holiday tradition, but maybe that’s how some of the best holiday traditions

It’s curious how some things take on a life of their own. We didn’t mean to start a holiday tradition, but maybe that’s how some of the best holiday traditions get started. A certain cookie to prepare for Santa. Putting out a bowl of dog food for the reindeer. (Doesn’t everyone do that?) Attending a particular religious service at a particular time. These inherited traditions have a power rooted in their history and nourished by the generations who answered the familial call to pass them along, if for no other reason than that they were passed along to them. Which is no small thing.

And then there are those traditions that just sort of happen. They are unplanned and little considered, until suddenly you realize that you’re doing something that has special meaning because it defines your family in a singular way.

Author T. Edwards Nickens, surrounded by family members, holds a plate of oysters

During their annual oyster roast, Nickens and his wife, Julie (center), find themselves happily surrounded by (from left) Ryan Murphy; their daughter, Markie; their son, Jack; and Carly Hoft. photograph by Tyler Northrup

All we meant to do was eat a few oysters on the back deck to kill time while the Christmas turkey cooked. Then, one year, Jack made a fabulous compound butter with adobo sauce, maple syrup, and bourbon, which we plopped on top of shucked oysters as they sizzled in their shells on the grill. That was next-level. Markie had the idea to introduce jalapeño popper dip from The Friendly Market down in Morehead City, a family favorite, and so the next year, we did. Soon enough, we had a full-blown oyster roast menu worked out that became a central focus of our holiday planning. I think it was the year we added espresso martinis to the mix that we realized we’d created a forever keeper. I think I remember lots of espresso martinis.

The notion of jump-starting the event with Fireball shots? Nice work, Julie.

And just like that, a tradition was born. Bit by bit. It happened the way the kids wore a trail down in the backyard when they were little, between the house-house and the tree house. They didn’t mean to. But there it was — a faint path where the grass didn’t grow quite right, trampled by tiny feet. All these years later, it still doesn’t green up like the rest of the yard, and I smile each time I notice.

Shucking a steaming hot roasted oyster

Steaming-hot oysters, plucked fresh off the grill, are shucked and filled with “the good stuff” — namely Jack’s bourbon-chipotle-maple syrup compound butter. photograph by Tyler Northrup

Now, our family-centric oyster roast is a holiday nonnegotiable: We pull together a few festive lights and a few family members and all the Significant Others. We shuck a few oysters to eat raw, with crackers and cocktail sauce. But most, we cook on the gas stove, and here’s how: You place unshucked oysters on the grill grate and let them heat until they barely pop open. That makes them easier to shuck — you’d better wear gloves, because they are blistering hot — and back on the grill they go. A third get a dollop of Jack’s adobo butter, a third get the spinach-and-Parmesan-cheese treatment, and a few others are bathed in a soy sauce, ginger, and lemongrass concoction. The rest are simply grilled, no adornment necessary.

Which day and at what time all of this takes place is as fluid as a bowl of melted snow cream. The gathering has evolved as the family has evolved. What’s more important than the schedule is the commitment to the tradition. The only given is that we all insist on making it happen.

• • •

Like the way we open Christmas stockings. We are big Christmas Stocking People, but we never actually planned to have four now-adults and whatever dogs happen to be in the house all pile into Markie’s bed to open Christmas stockings. That sounds a little weird, I know, but it all started back when the kids would awaken on Christmas morning the instant the first feeble, quivering solar photon would enter the Earth’s atmosphere. Get up! Mom! Dad! Can we get up now? We negotiated an early-morning détente: Instead of a rush to the tree and its absurd bounty of gifts, we slow-walked the morning, joining Markie in bed with the Christmas stockings so that Julie and I could squeeze another half-hour of half-sleep out of what was always a long night. We’ll likely continue the practice until the bed collapses. Which seems to be imminent, to be honest.

The oyster roast, the stockings reveal, the Christmas Eve pajamas swap — Julie and I would like to think that these holiday traditions sprouted in the rich soil of our excellent parenting, but they had more to do with serendipity than anything else. Still, we provided some pretty good ground for a tradition to take root. We’re not sticklers for things that are out of our control, like the kids’ schedules. We try to adapt to the changing shape of family life. At some point, Christmas Eve pajamas turned into Christmas Eve work khakis, because how many PJs does a 24-year-old young man need?

Oyster shucker next to a Santa-shaped coffee mug and platter of roasted oysters

Wassail served in the author’s Santa mug — a gift from his grandmother that only comes out on the most special of occasions — pairs well with oysters three ways (right): Rockefeller, raw, and topped with Jack’s compound butter. photograph by Tyler Northrup

There are no Thou Shalts, as in “Thou Shalt Gather on the Eve of Christmas Eve.” The oyster roast can happen before the holiday or after. It’s a rain-or-shine event. Last year, it was so bitterly cold that we had two gas heaters, a chiminea, and the grill with the cover off just to bring the deck temperature to barely bearable. The one year we pulled off the oyster roast under a couple of tarps in torrential rains and wicked winds was one of the most fun. Or most memorable. I’m not sure which is more important.

It’s simply a fact of life that keeping up with traditions like our family oyster roast won’t get any easier. Our foursome lives in multiple time zones now. There are new jobs to navigate, and the increasingly tricky calendar dance will only get trickier as the kids start to form their own family traditions. But that’s how it’s supposed to work. That’s life.

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This story was published on Nov 27, 2023

T. Edward Nickens

Nickens is editor-at-large of Field & Stream and the author of The Total Outdoorsman Manual and The Last Wild Road: Adventures and Essays from a Sporting Life. His articles also appear in Smithsonian and Audubon magazines.