Book Review – The Big Oyster

The Big Oyster, History on the Half Shell
By Mark Kurlansky
Random House 2006

When I was younger growing up on Long Island, NY my uncle and cousin would take me clamming in the Great South Bay.  We would get up at the crack of dawn to catch an early low tide and head out to Squaw Island, a little patch of nothing near the marshy coast where we would pull buckets of delicious, fresh littleneck clams.  On the ride home my uncle would pull out a clam knife and easily shuck a clam open and pop it right in his mouth.  My fascination with shellfish can easily be pin pointed to this memory.

Unfortunately when we got back home and I unloaded my harvest, my mother would inevitably ask me, “Did you eat any of those clams raw?  You can get so sick from that!”  You know how kids tend to actively do the things they are prohibited from doing?  Well I was not allowed to eat raw shellfish.  My mother did not trust it, and maybe she was right (she had lived on Long Island her whole life and knew what went into the bay), regardless the fact that I couldn’t eat them raw peaked an interest.  I was obsessed, and as soon as I could, whenever I could I would eat these forbidden morsels.

As I grew older my culinary tastes changed and it wasn’t long until I saw another lovely shellfish that seemed destined to be sucked out of it shell and dropped in my mouth: The Oyster.

I never knew much about oysters other than the fact that I love them everyway you can imagine eating them.  Fried, stewed, baked, on the half shell; smoked and pickled, oysters offer up endless culinary options one more delicious then the next.  Above all I love them raw, in their own “liquor” with little more than a mignonette sauce.  To eat an oyster raw is to actually taste the sea.  If you eat oysters from other regions you can actually taste the difference in the water they grew up in.  For someone who grew up on the water this can be an amazing experience.

Mark Kurlansky’s half history, half culinary tale of the oyster in The Big Oyster: History on the Half Shell, is a remarkable story of the Oyster, specifically the New York Oyster from before the Native Americans through the early settlers, the Revolution, Civil War, and Industrial Revolution through today.  Kurlansky tells the history of the bivalve linking it to the history of New York, which is what makes the story so fascinating.  Can you imagine pulling the tastiest oysters in the country out of the Gowanus Canal?  That canal has three different types of VD now and lacks the oxygen to sustain fish!  The most interesting thing about this book is the history of New York City as a vibrant estuary full of fish, shellfish and wildlife.  New York was seen as an actual Eden when settlers arrived here.  Travelers from Europe would write back and talk of 6-foot lobsters and oysters that were no less than a foot long.  New York became the Oyster capital of the world shipping pickled oysters across the country to California and the south.  They shipped live oysters to Europe and the Caribbean, Asia and South America.

The Big Oyster is a cautionary tale and Kurlansky, from the get go, talks of the New York oyster in the past tense.  Although we still harvest and eat fresh oysters from Long Island, the oysters of fame, fortune and unrivaled taste that were pulled out of the East and Hudson Rivers are long gone.  Pollution, over harvesting, industrialization and population explosions essentially wiped out the oyster industry of New York, which fed thousands of rich and poor alike, and employed even more up and down the rivers from the Battery to the Erie Canal.

My only critique of this book is that at times the history of New York, although interesting, takes precedence and Kurlansky drops in the oyster as a side note.  These moments can get pretty dry.  Also, there are way too many descriptions of the meals eaten at large state dinners and special events for dignitaries and guests like when Dickens came to New York.  After a few of these lists I get it already…they ate a lot and a lot of “it” was oysters.  However, the recipes are very interesting and Kurlansky does a wonderful job of presenting very old recipes dating back from before the Revolutionary War.  Like this excerpt:

From De Verstandige Kock ( The Sensible Cook) 1683

To Stuff a Capon or Hen with Oysters and to Roast [Them]

Take a good Capon cleaned on the inside then Oysters and some finely crushed Rusk, Pepper, Mace, Nutmeg-powder and a thin little slice of three fresh lemons, mix together, fill [the bird] with this.  When it is roasted one uses for a sauce nothing but the fat from the pan.  It is found to be good [that way]

Any culinary/history buff will love The Big Oyster for it’s in depth look at this little shellfish with a long story behind it.  For someone like me, obsessed with oysters for their taste, shape, smell and feel, this book was a wonderful historical account of one of my favorite foods.

— James

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