The Big Oyster

History on the Half Shell

Mark Kurlansky

The Big Oyster.

“In a cultivated bed, the oyster's life has one difference from a natural bed: Since they are planted by man, they are carefully laid out at a comfortable distance so that the shells have room to grow in a round and ample shape. Not only that, but the cultivator chooses the size. The oysters could grow quite large if left ten, twelve, or more years. It would not be profitable to raise a product that took fifteen years of growth before harvesting. Two to three years' growth is a more economically viable time for Crassostreas – the European flat oyster takes longer – and this produces a size that most people find agreeable. A three-year-old New York oyster is not a big as a three-year-old Chesapeake oyster, but it is a size that most people find pleasing and a few dozen could be served and all be more or less the same shape and size. Most people do not want to eat an oyster the size of a plate.

The important difference with cultivation was that New Yorkers now had an endless supply of oysters and they could almost make them to order. The technology would become increasingly refined, until by the midtwentieth century, scientists could artificially inseminate an oyster – as though an oyster's life wasn't dull enough already.”

How many of our readers were aware that, for centuries, New York City was famous for oysters? Or that, until the early 1900s, the oyster played such a dominant role in the city's life that they were Gotham's most celebrated export? Your reviewer did not, at least not until she happened upon another of Mark Kurlansky's histories, titled The Big Oyster. Author of Salt and Cod (both previously reviewed in earlier issues of the Newswire), Kurlansky brings to the reader's attention a remarkable story of New York, tracing the trajectory of one of its most fascinating inhabitants – the oyster.

“By 1842, about $6 million worth of oysters were being sold every year to restaurants, fish stores, and street vendors in New York City. Most of these oysters entered the Manhattan market from barges tied up on either the Hudson or East River. These barges were wholesale houses, storage bins, and packinghouses. Typically an oyster barge was a two-story wooden vessel with a curved deck for drainage. On one end, oystermen would tie up their boots and unload, while on the other, pedestrians and wagons from the street would pull up to buy oysters.

By mid-century, oyster dealers were having special barges built, sometimes called arks or scows. The first had small decks, only twelve feet by thirty feet. By the 1880s, at least thirty barges were tied up along the Manhattan waterfront, and they had become two-story structures up to seventy-five feet long and twenty-four feet wide. They would be tied up together in a row, fixed to the waterfront by a gangplank the width of the barge, so that they looked like a row of two-story shopfronts except that they bobbed up and down in the current.

The floating oyster markets were the middlemen between the oyster producers and the eleven central food markets located near the docks where products from around the state, the country, and the world were landed. By 1860, more than 12 million oysters were sold in New York markets annually. New York was the oyster-trading center of the world.”

In short, this history of the oysters of New York is a history of the city itself – its vitality, its strength, its wealth and greed, its excitement and its blindness – and ultimately, its trashing of the great Hudson River estuary that for so long was home to all those oysters. A cautionary tale of habitat destruction and  quite extraordinary capitalism, with a number of recipes thrown in for good measure, The Big Oyster is at once entertaining and yet somewhat alarming. Be sure to read all about it.

Copyright © 2007, S. Halversen.
All Rights Reserved.