Quebec Oyster Parties

How National Breweries did Them; how the Royal Canadian Legion did Them

In the late 1970s and early ’80s I attended a number of oyster dinners at Royal Canadian Legion halls on the West Island (an English part, or then) of Montreal.

For a small fee oyster soup was served, being a light-coloured broth (maybe chicken broth) filled with plump oysters; raw oysters; Quebec bread which was a light, white loaf, nothing resembling any traditional bread I’ve had in France; and of course beer, the bottled brands of the day, all domestic. There was no stout even though Guinness was brewed in Quebec then. I don’t think the oysters were fried, except probably for the soup, but I may be wrong on that.

I think too there were Quebec desserts like the creamy and sinfully rich tarte au sucre, and the latticed square tarts filled with fruit or raisins popular, then, in Quebec and I hope still. The sugar pie was definitely French in origin and I’ve found similar things in France. It is not at all like a treacle tart, butter tart, or that type of confection. The other desserts mentioned may have British origins though, where sweet pies with pastry on both sides are common.

The Legion Halls did this to help raise funds for their operations. The bivalves were always Malpeque, from Prince Edward Island, among the best in the world. Quite large and salty but without the iodine taste of Belon oysters from France (also now grown in Maine, U.S.A.).

I don’t think there was any entertainment, maybe recorded music.

The oyster party is an old Quebec tradition, inherited from the 1800s and of course widespread at one time in the Northeast. NBL evidently prided itself on holding these for the employees as they are regularly mentioned in its 1940s house journal, The Review.

This issue in 1949, see the last few pages, has excellent images of these parties. They were held separately at each brewery in the group and it appears the “Transport” group held its own as well. They were strictly male only and female only affairs. The Review regularly depicted images of both.

The men were dressed in coat and tie, all of them, and the women well-turned out as well. The oysters were served informally, piled on long plank tables erected on beer cases or simple wood frames. Underneath, the empty oyster shells were strewn into boxes for easy disposal. And beer a plenty of course accompanied these events.

In some pictures, it looks like full cases of beer were placed under the trestles for service “à volonté”.

At the Legion dinners, I’m quite sure we sat down but the oyster feast of National Breweries was all stand-up, altitudinal you might say! Considering that at least three or four brands of all-malt, well-hopped beer were available, this was their version of our beer festivals. They did pretty well.

As E.P. Taylor’s Canadian Breweries Ltd. bought out NBL in 1952, enter the bean counters. Did they allow the oyster tradition to continue? Somehow, I doubt it.

A quick check seems to suggest these affairs are not standbys any longer of the Legion Halls. Perhaps the oysters are too expensive. Still, the Legion occasionally still does them, I identified two such events held last year at its halls in Alberta.

The 1949 magazine also has an interesting article on a change to the Dow Ale label in that year and the marketing reasoning. I think the “Autrefois” (formerly) and “Maintenant” (now) columns, for the old and new designs, were reversed though, comparing them to the account in the text. Or am I reading it wrong?

These labels state 22 oz., nay “British” ounces, or “pintes” in the old Quebec terminology. A clear, stubby, non-returnable bottle is also shown for Dow Ale. It was 12 oz., a “chopine”. The stubby was not new when introduced industry-wide in the early 1960s, except in the sense of being returnable.

On the page for the ladies’ event is a photo from another party for NBL women, one honouring Ste. Catherine, the patron saint of girls and unmarried women. One lady was kitted out to play the “vieille fille”, or old maid. This is how things were done then…

The Ste. Catherine celebration, while known through the French world, has particular resonance in Quebec, to this day. This 2016 story in the National Post attests to it.

Note re image: the image shown is drawn from the issue of The Review (La Revue) identified and linked in the text. The magazine appears on the City of Montreal’s superb virtual exhibition on Dawes Brewery history. All intellectual property therein belongs solely to the lawful owner, as applicable. Used for educational and historical purposes. All feedback welcomed.











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