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February 9, 2007

The Big Oyster

History on the Half Shell
Mark Kurlansky – ISBN – 978-0345476395

A thoroughly delightful, entertaining and informative read! As with Salt and Cod, he brings to light the history of oystering, principally in New York and the surrounding area from colonization to exhaustion.

Along the way, as usual, he manages to sneak in snippets about Diamond Jim Brady, Lillian Russell and other New York City luminaries, necessarily including Delmonicos and Thomas Downing—interestingly a successful former slave—and Downing's, which had been the oyster house in the Oyster Capital of the World in the mid-19th century. Indeed, at about that time “oystering was the single most important economic activity on Staten Island.” He also reviews visits by Charles Dickens and others who came in part to enjoy New York’s oysters. So plentiful were they that they were eaten three meals a day by all classes of people . . . especially the poor, because they were so cheap.

He reviews Fulton’s and Livingston’s contribution of the Steam Engine and its impact on oystering as well as New York, with ferry services about town and to Connecticut and Rhode Island. Again he notes how important the Erie Canal was to the marketing of oysters to inland cities as far away as St. Louis, connecting the Atlantic to the Great Lakes. (Recall that in Salt he explained how important the construction of the canal was to the marketing of salt.)

He manages to cover everything from the technology of harvesting to those of environmental protection and aquaculture, which began very early in the waterways around New York before they became too polluted to sustain life. He also mentions Native American technology extant long before Europeans arrived. He even covers “the education of oysters!” It was interesting to learn that the Revolutionary War was a catastrophe for oystering, and the city itself. As well, to learn that there was a time, later, when New York supplied oysters to the world . . . after the Europeans had exhausted their oyster beds. Europeans, always suspicious of Americans and convinced that the product had to be inferior, came to prefer American oysters. In 1877 an entrepreneur sent 10 barrels of oysters to Liverpool and had “the greatest difficulty imaginable in disposing of them.” By 1882 5000 barrels per week were shipped and sold, “the English people [having] acquired a taste for American oysters and obliged to admit their superiority over their natives.”

He also recants the origins of the names for oysters: Blue Points, Rockaway, etc. and how they were used and misused to market the product.

And he manages to include numerous recipes for the preparation of oysters, as he previously has done for cod and for the uses of salt.

Posted by respeto at February 9, 2007 5:18 PM