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History on the Half-Shell: The story of New York City and its oysters
Blue Points, Saddle Rocks, Rockaways, Lynnhavens, Cape Cods, Buzzard Bays, Cotuits, Shrewsburys -- raw on the half shell. Fried oysters, oyster pie, oyster patties, oyster box stew, Oysters Pompadour, Oysters Algonquin, Oysters a la Netherland, a la Newberg, a la Poulette, oysters roasted on toast, broiled in shell, served with cocktail sauce, stewed in milk or cream, fried with bacon, escalloped, fricasseed, and pickled. If you have spent any time transcribing for NYPL's What’s on the Menu? project, you’ve seen a lot of ways to prepare this humble bivalve.
It surprises some that oysters are such major players on these historic menus, but the oyster reigned supreme as the quintessential New York City food long before pizza, hot pretzels, bagels, and hot dogs were known to our shellfish-encrusted shores. When Henry Hudson first sailed into the river that would one day bear his name, the Lenape people had long been plucking its supple oyster beds. Archaeological evidence gathered from tremendous mounds of oyster shells called “middens” indicates that the New York Harbor oysters were not only plentiful, they were much larger than the kind familiar to us today. Harbor oyster shells from these middens measured up to 10 inches, and early European travellers describe the shellfish as being about a foot in length1.
In a comprehensive history of the oyster in New York, The Big Oyster, author Mark Kurlansky wrote, “the history of the New York oyster is a history of New York itself -- its wealth, its strength, its excitement, its greed, its thoughtfulness, its destructiveness, its blindness, and -- as any New Yorker will tell you -- its filth.” It was pollution and over-harvesting that killed the oyster industry in in New York, a surprising feat considering that the lower Hudson estuary once had 350 square miles of oyster beds and some biologists estimate that the New York Harbor contained half of the the world’s oysters2.
Though the Dutch were disappointed that the harbor oysters were not pearl producers, they recognized their abundance; the settlers even called Ellis and Liberty islands “Little Oyster Island” and “Great Oyster Island” because of the sprawling oyster beds surrounding them. Pearl Street, once a waterfront road, was named for a midden and later even paved with oyster shells. Early in New York history, the oyster became world-renowned. Kurlansky explained, “Before the 20th century, when people thought of New York, they thought of oysters. This is what New York was to the world -- a great oceangoing port where people ate succulent local oysters from their harbor. Visitors looked forward to trying them. New Yorkers ate them constantly. They also sold them by the millions.” He also wrote, “The combination of having reputably the best oysters in the world in what had become unarguably the greatest port in the world made New York City for an entire century the world’s oyster capital.”2 Charles Dickens, during his American sojourn, was one of those foreign visitors who made it a point to stop at the city’s oyster cellars, which advertised “Oysters in Every Style”3. Dickens even commented on the “wonderful cookery of oysters” within New York1.
The oyster cellar was a ubiquitous eatery in NYC from early in city history until the closing of the oyster beds. Downing’s Oyster House, a celebrated oyster cellar of the early 1800s, was located at the corner of Broad and Wall streets. Proprietor Thomas Downing was an African-American businessman (rare in pre-Civil War America) who listed his occupation as “oysterman” in the city directory. Downing’s Oyster House was well known amongst the city’s well-to-do, and as a result Downing himself became famous and affluent. The Oyster House did not limit its offerings to raw, fried, and stewed -- Downing’s menu included scalloped oysters, oyster pie, fish with oyster sauce, fish with oyster sauce, and poultry stuffed with oysters4. Delmonico’s, easily the vanguard restaurant of NYC and en vogue Francophiles, set the trend of serving oysters raw on the half-shell2. They are also responsible for the trend of menus littered with mots français, many examples of which you can espy in the menu collection.
Oysters were by no means limited to nice restaurants, or even oyster cellars. Street vending of oysters, along with hot corn, peanuts, and buns, was part of New York’s regular food distribution system. While visiting New York in the 1790’s, the Frenchman Moreau de St. Mery commented, “Americans have a passion for oysters, which they eat at all hours, even in the streets.” Oysters were regular fare at cheap eateries, and it was claimed that the very poorest New Yorkers “had no other subsistence than oysters and bread.”1 Fortunately, oysters are nutritious - rich in protein, phosphorus, iodine, calcium, iron, and vitamins A, B, and C.5
An interesting specialty that also appeared on New York menus was terrapin. The terrapin, considered exotic even in an age when calf brains were regularly seen on menus, was “unique among turtles because it lives in the same brackish tidal waters as the clams and oysters upon which it feeds.” Later served in upper class restaurants with wine sauce or a la Maryland, terrapin was once served in taverns cooked in the style that the Lenape had used: roasted whole over an open fire2. Naturally, the terrapin disappeared off of menus when their own diet of New York harbor oysters became polluted.
Though the original oyster population was capable of filtering all of the the water in New York Harbor in a matter of days, it was not an unlimited resource. In 1658, New Amsterdam’s Dutch Council had already limited when and from where oysters could be gathered because of over-harvesting. As early as 1704, residents of Rockaway attempted to regulate oystering in their waters to locals only. New Yorkers made a lot of mistakes with oystering - for example, it took a remarkably long time to figure out that the best thing to do with oyster shells is to dump them back onto oyster beds. Previously they had been burned, placed in piles, or turned into mortar paste to aid NY’s building boom. Trinity Church is an example of a building built with oyster-shell mortar paste.
Burdened by over-harvesting, sewage pollution, and landfill -- Manhattan added over 60 acres to its land area with landfill -- the oysters of New York harbor were not on a sustainable track. In 1927, the last of the New York oyster beds was closed, primarily because of toxicity. Following that year, “New Yorkers continued to eat oysters, though not as many, and oyster bars remained popular, though not on the same scale. New ones opened all the time, like the Oyster Bar in Grand Central Terminal that debuted in 1913. But they weren’t serving local oysters.”2 New York was no longer an oyster capital.
New York’s oysters were too polluted to eat by 1927, and pollution only increased in subsequent years. It was not until after 1972’s Clean Water Act that any improvements were seen, but the oysters are still not edible almost 40 years after the passage of that act. Dredging stirs up centuries worth of pollution lying thickly upon the harbor floor. But one thing is certain, replacing the oyster beds will only help aid the rehabilitation of the harbor. Though the oysters can do nothing about harmful PCBs and heavy metals (which is why we still shouldn’t eat them), they can quickly cleanse organic wastes from the water. Major efforts to restore New York’s oyster population are underway.
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Join the menu transcription effort at What's on the Menu?
Sources for this article:
1. Gastropolis: Food and New York City.
2. The Big Oyster by Mark Kurlansky
3. "Before there were bagels, New York had the oyster" by William Grimes, New York Times; retrieved via Gale Group New York Times 1985-present.
4. "Mr. Downing and his oyster house: the life and good works of an African-American entrepreneur" by John H. Hewitt, American Visions; retrieved via Academic OneFile.
5. "Oyster" - via Grolier Online.