Author(s): Mark Kurlansky
When Peter Minuit bought Manhattan for $24 in 1626 - his first New York real estate killing - he showed his shrewdness by also buying the oyster beds off tiny, nearby Oyster Island, renamed Ellis Island in 1770.
From the Minuit purchase until centuries of pollution finally destroyed the beds in the 1920s, New York was a city known for its oysters: the 'Blue Points,' still produced by the Long Island town of the same name; the 'Rockaways' and 'East Rivers'; 'Sounds' from Staten Island; several Manhattan varieties, and even those from a celebrated area by what is now LaGuardia Airport.
For centuries New York was world famous as an oyster centre, especially in the late 1800s, when Europe and America enjoyed a decades-long oyster craze. In Europe New York oysters were famous for both their size and durability. In a dubious endorsement, William Makepeace Thackeray said that eating a New York oyster was like eating a baby.
When travellers visited New York, they not only wanted to eat the Coral oysters, they wanted to experience the famous New York oyster houses. While some houses were known for their elegance, the infamous slums such as Five-Points were notoriously disreputable. Due to a longstanding belief in the aphrodisiac quality of oysters, they were often associated with prostitution. In 1842, when the novelist Charles Dickens arrived in New York, he could not conceal his eagerness to find and experience the fabled oyster cellars of New York City's slums.
THE BIG OYSTER is the history of the city as told through its celebrated bivalve. It is a gastronomic history revealing four centuries of culinary evolution and food trends in a city that has always been a gastronomic trendsetter. But it is also an economic history, examining the enormous impact of transportation innovations - the Erie Canal, the railroad, and clipper ship - that completely changed urban living and food and also accounted for the growth of a thriving international oyster trade.
First published 2006.