Velma Marie’s Oyster Soup

By: Hannah Lee Leidy
Photo by Denny Culbert

Note: Start the salt pork at least three days before you plan to make the soup.
To get your hands on oyster liquor (also known as oyster water), look for a supplier of raw oysters, an oyster factory, or an oyster bar. Make friends with the supplier or shucker and ask if they will save some oyster liquor for you. If you can’t get your hands on the liquor, a tip from captain Johnny, my oyster purveyor, is to take six shucked oysters and blend them with 1 quart water, adding 1 teaspoon kosher salt, then strain the liquid and use it in place of the oyster liquor. Taste your oyster liquor: If it’s not salty, add a teaspoon of salt to bring the brininess up (if that doesn’t do it, add up to 2 teaspoons more).

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Serves 8-12

    For the salt pork:
  • 3 pounds skin-on pork belly or shoulder
  • 1½ cups sea salt or kosher salt
  • 1 bay leaf
  • For the soup:
  • 1 tablespoon canola oil
  • ½ pound salt pork
  • 4 pounds yellow onions, finely diced
  • 4 large ripe tomatoes, cored
  • 1 cup finely chopped garlic
  • ½ teaspoon cracked black pepper, plus more as needed
  • ⅛ teaspoon cayenne pepper, plus more as needed
  • 3 quarts oyster liquor (or fish stock or chicken stock)*
  • 2 pounds shucked salty oysters, drained
  • Salt, if needed
  • ½ pound small or medium pasta shells, cooked as directed on the package
  • Garnish: Finely chopped flat-leaf parsley and green onions
  1. Make the salt pork: Wash and dry the pork and cut it into pieces that will fit into your casserole dish. Working over the dish, rub pork liberally on all sides with salt. You want to really press the salt into the pork. Place pieces in casserole dish and cover with remaining salt; add the bay leaf. Wrap the casserole dish with plastic wrap, then refrigerate for 2 days.
  2. Unwrap pork and pour off any liquid. Use salt on the bottom of the dish to give pork another good rub. Rewrap and refrigerate for 2 days more.
  3. The salt pork should now be ready. You can use it immediately, or cut it into 8-ounce chunks, wrap them in plastic wrap or butcher paper, and put them in a zip-top freezer bag and freeze for up to 1 year.
  4. Make the soup: Warm a large, heavy-bottomed soup pot over medium-high heat for 2 minutes, then add oil and heat for 30 seconds. Add salt pork and cook, stirring as needed to brown on all sides, about 12 minutes.
  5. Add onions and cook, stirring occasionally, until soft and translucent, about 20 minutes. Add tomatoes, garlic, black pepper, and cayenne and stir well. Reduce heat to low, cover, and let everything smother together, stirring every 15 minutes. Cook until tomatoes are completely broken down and fall apart easily when you press on them with a spoon, about 45 minutes. (The timing may vary depending on the size of your tomatoes.)
  6. Add oyster liquor and raise heat to medium. Bring soup to a boil, then reduce heat to low and simmer for 45 minutes, letting all the flavors marry; the soup will be salty from the oyster water and salt pork and sweet from the tomatoes and onions. Be careful to not boil down the soup too much.
  7. Just before serving, add oysters and increase heat to medium. Bring soup to a brisk simmer and cook for 5 minutes, then turn off heat. Taste the soup and adjust seasonings if necessary. (The cayenne is essential to the taste: Not too much, but a tiny bit of sweet heat makes it perfect.) Add cooked pasta shells and stir to combine. Ladle soup into bowls and garnish with parsley and green onions. Serve with crusty country bread.

From Ode to Chauvin. 

  • Recipe adapted from
    Mosquito Supper Club by Melissa Martin (Artisan, 2020).

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