Kurlansky (Boogaloo on Second Avenue, 2005, etc.) takes a fresh look at the tasty, once plentiful mollusk in this stimulating, often fascinating saga.
In describing the rise and fall of the oyster industry in New York, Kurlansky delivers an insightful history of the city itself, from the day in 1609 when Henry Hudson first sailed into New York Harbor (where he was promptly offered oysters by the resident Lenni Lenape Indians) through the inexorable pollution of New York's once teeming oyster beds, resulting in their closing by 1930. New Yorkers may be surprised to learn just how plentiful oysters were. One biologist claimed that New York Harbor once contained half the world's oysters, and, by 1880, with the help of scientific “cultivation,” New York's waters were producing 700 million oysters a year. Small wonder that oyster stands and oyster saloons were ubiquitous in 19th-century New York. Kurlansky seasons his scholarship with colorful asides on everything from the birth of Delmonico's restaurant to the boisterous oyster-shucking contests that were once a staple of New York life. (In 1885, a shucker named Billy Lowney opened 100 oysters in three minutes, three seconds.) Many vintage oyster recipes are included, with some calling for more than one hundred oysters per recipe. While oysters are clearly the stars here, Kurlansky also offers some intriguing human portraits, from Charles Dickens, who preferred eating his oysters in dingy oyster cellars, to the corpulent Diamond Jim Brady, who was said to begin each meal with a gallon of orange juice and six dozen Lynnhaven oysters. Kurlansky serves up the heady story with trenchant prose and a knack for curious insight. True, after hearing him describe the oyster's innards, you may not be rushing to the nearest oyster bar: “If the oyster is opened carefully, the diner is eating an animal with a working brain, a stomach, intestines, liver and a still-beating heart.”
A compelling, highly readable treat, whether you partake of Ostreidae or not.