Quebec Oyster Parties

National Breweries Limited; the Royal Canadian Legion 

In the late 1970s and early ’80s, I attended oyster dinners held at Royal Canadian Legion halls on the West Island of Montreal. The Legion was, and is, an organization of veterans and other supporters of the armed services.

For a small fee, oyster soup was served: a light-coloured broth (maybe chicken-based), filled with plump oysters. Then there were raw oysters, Quebec-style bread (a light, white loaf, nothing like traditional bread I’ve had in France), and of course beer! The beer was bottled brands of the day, all domestic. There was no stout even though Guinness was brewed in Quebec then.

I think, too, there were Quebec desserts such as the creamy and sinfully rich tarte au sucre, or the latticed, square tarts filled with fruit or raisins. The sugar pie was surely French in origin as I’ve found similar confections in France.

Legion Halls held these parties to raise funds for operations. The bivalves were always Malpeques, from Prince Edward Island, among the best in the world. Quite large and salty, they lack the iodine taste of Belon oysters from France, also now grown in Maine, U.S.A., but maybe are better on that account.

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

The oyster party is an old Quebec tradition, inherited from the 1800s and indeed widespread at one time in the Northeast.

National Breweries Limited, which grouped most of the breweries in Quebec in the 1940s, prided itself on holding these for employees. The parties were regularly mentioned in the house magazine, called The Review.

This issue in 1949 has excellent pictures of these parties, see the last few pages. They were held at each brewery in the group. The “Transport” group had its own, as well. (All that garage space, surely). Men and women each attended their own party, there was no mixing of the genders.

The men are shown in coat and tie, every one of them. The women were well-turned out as well. The oysters were served informally, piled on long plank tables improvised from beer cases or simple wood frames. Underneath, empty oyster shells were cast into boxes for easy disposal. Beer a plenty is shown, of course, to accompany the briny treats.

Some pictures show full cases of beer under the trestles – no quicker way to get a beer.

At the Legion parties I attended I’m quite sure we sat down, but the oyster feasts of National Breweries were stand-up – altitudinal, you might say.

Considering that at least three or four brands of all-malt, well-hopped beer were available,* that was their version of the modern beer festival. They did not so bad.

Canadian Breweries Ltd. was the vehicle of Toronto-based mogul E.P. Taylor. CBL bought out National Breweries in 1952. As day follows night, one can assume its “bean counters” combed the accounts of National Breweries. Did they allow the oyster tradition to continue? Somehow, I don’t think so, but I don’t know for sure.

Today, even the Legion Halls seem to hold them only occasionally. Maybe oysters are too costly now. Still, I found two such events for Alberta last year.

The issue I mentioned of The Review has an interesting article on changes to the Dow Ale label and the marketing logic. I think the columns entitled “Autrefois” (meaning formerly) and “Maintenant” (meaning now), for the old and new designs, were reversed, but we’ll set that aside.

The labels that state “22 oz” meant Imperial ounces; these bottles were “pintes” in the old Quebec terminology. A stubby, non-returnable format is also shown for Dow Ale. That was 12 oz., or a “chopine” in Quebec. The stubby was not new when introduced industry-wide in Canada in the early 1960s, except in the sense of being returnable.

 

 

On the same page as the ladies’ oyster event is a photo of another females-only party. This one honoured Ste. Catherine, the patron saint of girls and unmarried women. A woman is costumed to play the vieille fille, or old maid. That’s how things were, then…

The Ste. Catherine celebration, known throughout the French-speaking world, had particular resonance in Quebec, and still continues. A 2016 story in Toronto’s National Post brought matters to our time.

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.

……………………..

*Canadian ale and lager at the time were all-malt, I have documented this separately. That was a point of difference to American practise.