17 October 2018
Mark Kurlansky might be the king of the micro-history. His books Salt and Cod were both excellent examinations of history in the context of those minerals and fishes. So when I saw The Big Oyster on the audio-book shelf at my public library, I checked it out, knowing roughly what I would get – a history anchored to that particular delicious mollusk. In this case, it’s a history of New York City specifically. This is a little crazy if you’ve been to New York lately, but Kurlansky maintains that back in the day, about 200 years ago, New York’s waterways – the Hudson River and the East River and the various bays – contained half of the world’s oysters. They were apparently legendary for their size and flavor in addition to their profusion. Middens attributed to the Lenape, a Native people, and their predecessors show huge oysters at the base of the piles, some 8 to 10 inches across, and then a decrease in size going upward, as the best were harvested and consumed first, and more marginal specimens taken only when nothing better could be gleaned. That prehistorical trend presaged the eventual destruction of New York’s oyster beds through overharvesting and (more importantly) pollution.
I learned some fun facts in the book, like the fact that the word “cookie” comes from the Dutch settlers of New Amsterdam, and that it was one of the few terms that stuck around after the British took over. (“Biscuits?” No thanks!) Or that “Catskill” (as in the Catskill Mountains of upstate New York) referred to streams with bobcats and mountain lions near them. I learned that you can train an oyster to keep shut (“clammed up”?) in order to make him/her last longer on shipment to markets far from the shore. I learned about sustainable oyster cultivation using nothing more technologically advanced than a rowboat and some tree branches. I learned about Charles Dickens’ predilection for oyster bars, about the relationship of oysters to the ‘gangs of New York‘ in Five Points as well as to the robber barons of the gilded age. Kurlansky can tie oysters to political movements and prostitution and ecological insight and the canal industry. It’s all there! But the essential messages of the book are gustatory and environmental, I’d say.
There are parallels between The Big Oyster and William Warner’s Beautiful Swimmers (about blue crabs in Chesapeake Bay), but Kurlansky’s book is all third-person, holding the subject at arm’s reach. I really appreciate it when an author like Warner (or John McPhee) gets up close and personal with his subject, reporting first hand on experiences or conversations. This book lacks that.
It’s not a perfect book. As usual, I can find geological errors in almost any text. (It’s a curse!) One that glared in The Big Oyster was Kurlansky saying “65 million years ago, when humans first began evolving,” which is monstrously inaccurate. There were no primates 65 million years ago, much less any hominins. There were human ancestors, but they were rodent-like things, and they hadn’t “just” begun evolution; their had been at it since the beginning of life on this planet. Aside from relatively minor errors like that, another issue I had with the book was the excessive recounting of oyster recipes, which became absolutely maddening with repetition. Kurlansky lays out something like 2 or 3 dozen historical ways of preparing oysters, when half a dozen would have made the point adequately.
That said, I never knew anything about this essential aspect of early New York. It was the oyster capital of the world for a long time, and that legacy has helped shape the city that remains in the post-oyster era.