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Authors: Mark Kurlansky

The Big Oyster

BOOK: The Big Oyster
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To Alvin and Barbara Mass,
two great New Yorkers

Others will see the shipping of Manhattan north and west, and the heights of Brooklyn to the south and east.

Others will see the island large and small;

Fifty years hence, others will see them as they cross, the sun half an hour high,

A hundred years hence, or ever so many hundred years hence, others will see them,

Will enjoy the sunset, the pouring-in of the flood-tide, the falling-back to the sea of the ebb-tide.

—WALT WHITMAN,

“Crossing Brooklyn Ferry,” 1856

PREFACE

The Hard Shell of the City

To me New York is the most wonderful and most beautiful city in the world. All life is in it.

—CHILDE HASSAM,
American Impressionist painter, 1889

T
o anyone who is familiar with New Yorkers, it should
not be surprising to learn that they were once famous for eating their food live. The fact that oysters are about the only food eaten alive is part of what makes them a unique gastronomic experience—that and the sense that no other food brings us closer to the sea. Oysters spend their lives—a dozen years if we left them alone, but only three or four because we don't—sucking in seawater, extracting nutrients, and pumping it out again. There used to be enough oysters in New York Harbor to process all the water there, which is one of the reasons environmentalists want them back. And perhaps this is also why oysters taste like eating the sea.

New Yorkers seldom think of it this way, but they live in the estuary of the Hudson River, an expansive interconnected tidal system that also involves New Jersey and Connecticut. Damage anywhere in this system deteriorates the entire estuary.

Recently, while riding a train from Washington, D.C., to New York, I found myself along the part of New York Harbor's shoreline that some people unkindly call “the chemical coast.” Many New Yorkers forget that this is part of their harbor because it is “out of town” in New Jersey. Usually when I'm returning to New York, at this point I would look homeward to Manhattan at the never-disappointing skyline of the island where I live. Otherwise I would look out at smokestacks and pipes and flames from refineries. But for some reason, this one time, I looked instead right in front of me and realized that I was in a grassy wetland—a magnificent grassy wetland where egrets and herons could live. As the grass rolled in waves and the sun reflected on narrow waterways, I saw that this could have been a northern Everglades. By what act of blind insanity did people decide to build chemical plants, oil refineries, and heavy industry in a beautiful wetland that belonged to one of the world's great waterways? Blind madness? It occurred to me that they had probably never really looked at it either.

The only thing New Yorkers ignore more than nature is history. They have a habit of not spending a great deal of time pondering the history of their city. That is because of a sense that it has always been more or less the same, or, as Edmund Wilson, one of the more venerated
New Yorker
writers of that magazine's heyday, explained his waning enthusiasm for reading history in his old age, “I know more or less the kind of things that happen.”

The history of New York oysters is a history of New York itself—its wealth, its strength, its excitement, its greed, its thoughtlessness, its destructiveness, its blindness and—as any New Yorker will tell you—its filth. This is the history of the trashing of New York, the killing of its great estuary.

New York is a city that does not plan; it creates situations and then deals with them. Most of its history is one of greedily grabbing beautiful things, destroying them, being outraged about the conditions, tearing them down, then building something else even further from nature's intention in their place. What could be more typical of New York than “the Doorknob,” a spot in New York Harbor that is contaminated from being used as a dumping ground for the trash created when the city tried to correct decades of neglect on the Lower East Side by tearing down the tenements to build housing projects.

One of the great New York paradoxes is that the metropolis is both unique and typical. Many of its stories are true for other cities as well. The oyster history of New York often matches that of other great oyster capitals such as Paris, and London on the oyster-encrusted estuary of the Thames. It is interesting that London, rich in its own oysters like New York, also destroyed them, whereas Paris, which was the commercial and consuming capital of oysters brought in from other regions, did more to preserve its beds.

Before the twentieth 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, supplying Chicago, St. Louis, Denver, and San Francisco, but also shipping to England, France, and Germany. As New York transportation improved, New York oysters traveled ever farther. In the nineteenth century the British credited New York with meeting their oyster needs when their own famous beds failed.

Oysters were true New Yorkers. They were food for gourmets, gourmands, and those who were simply hungry; tantalizing the wealthy in stately homes and sustaining the poor in wretched slums; a part of city commerce and a part of international trade.

If eating an oyster is tasting the sea, eating a New York oyster was tasting New York Harbor, which became increasingly unappealing. The oyster was New Yorkers' link to the sea, and eventually it was lost. Today New Yorkers eat not as many oysters, but still quite a few, albeit from a dozen other places, and now when they think of the sea, they think of somewhere else—perhaps the eastern tip of Long Island or New England or even Florida. Though they live by the sea, they take vacations to go somewhere else to be by the sea. Of the many odd things about New Yorkers, there is this: How is it that a people living in the world's greatest port, a city with no neighborhood that is far from a waterfront, a city whose location was chosen because of the sea, where the great cargo ships and tankers, mighty little tugs, yachts, and harbor patrol boats glide by, has lost all connection with the sea, almost forgotten that the sea is there? New Yorkers have lost their oyster, their taste of the sea. This is the story of how it happened.

PROLOGUE

A Good Time Coming


Fruges consumere nati
[born to eat produce],” may designate humanity elsewhere, but here the quotation may be out of place, for man seems born to consume “oysters.”

—CHARLES MACKAY ON NEW YORK CITY,
Life and Liberty in America or Sketches of a Tour in the United States and Canada in 1857–58

L
ife had been working out very well for Charles Mackay,
a Scottish songwriter. Every week, from 1851 to 1855, the London
Illustrated News
had published one of his songs and they were becoming a popular phenomenon on both sides of the Atlantic. The sheet music of one tune, “A Good Time Coming,” had sold four hundred thousand copies.

In 1857, at the height of his popularity, Mackay accepted an offer for a lecture tour of the United States and Canada. Though originally he had enthusiastically embraced this opportunity to see North American cities, while he was waiting in Liverpool for his ship to sail, his exuberance was quickly fading.

The wind ripped through the harbor with such a loud eerie howl that he could not sleep at night. It was only early October and winter was already settling into Liverpool. Surely the North Atlantic in the weeks to come would be even worse. The dark, opaque sea, almost indistinct from the muddy, dark sky, churned at the mouth of the Mersey, throwing up little peaks that even in their sheltered moorings made the ships' spars swing like anxious pendulums as the rigging creaked gloomily. He thought of weeks in this rasping wooden box under blackened skies on a heaving, dark sea.

A disturbingly cheerful friend was hosting him at the Waterloo Hotel while he waited for the hour to board ship. As his friend saw him to the door, Mackay studied the rain beating against the windows. It was not just falling on the panes, it was pelting them, tiny hard beads that bounced off the glass.

His friend wished him a safe and speedy crossing and then added grandly in a voice that rose above the howling wind and pelted panes, “I envy you your trip to America.”

Mackay, probably unconvincingly, attempted an appropriately jovial expression, but all he could manage to say was “And why?”

“Because,” the friend answered with a joyous, beaming smile, “you will get such delicious oysters! New York beats all creation for oysters.”

Two months later, writing in his diary from New York City, Mackay noted, “Mine host spoke the truth. There is no place in the world where there are such fine oysters as in New York . . . .”

BOOK: The Big Oyster
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