For those of us who regard the oyster as the apogee of gastronomic delight, Mark Kurlansky's latest venture into culinary history is packed with interest. Anyone intrigued by the history of New York City will also find the book absorbing. Even if you're lukewarm in your desire to learn about molluscs on the eastern seaboard, his narrative should prove compelling. In a book full of surprises, Kurlansky reveals that the oyster beds of New York were almost as significant as the fisheries of the Grand Banks, which he chronicled in Cod.
Far from being the empty paradise of popular imagination, New York sustained a population of 15,000 prior to the arrival of the Dutch in the early 17th century. Native Americans feasted on the wealth of bivalves in the waters surrounding Manhattan. Several hundred shell middens have been found. It is estimated that at this time New York harbour "contained half the world's oysters".
The only reason that the shell-crammed seabed was not as important as the Grand Banks is that oysters are relatively lacking in nourishment. To survive on oysters alone, an individual needs 250 a day. Moreover, they're not easy to open without a metal implement. Kurlansky suggest that oysters were eaten and traded simply because they were a delicacy, a "gastronomic treat".
This was certainly the approach of the European colonists, who tackled this offshore hors d'oeuvre with gusto. The Dutch ate the oysters fried, stewed, pickled, colloped and rolled in cornmeal. Though a few British recipes are included, we preferred the bivalve raw. Kurlansky points out that "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".
The British taste for American oysters seems ambiguous. Though the most famous oysters, known as Bluepoints ("a good marketing name is never unimportant in the oyster business," notes Kurlansky), were exported in quantity to London in the mid-19th century, some eminent English visitors were unimpressed.
Thackeray disliked their size ("like eating a baby"), while Marryat simply didn't like the taste. When I had a plate of Bluepoints in Grand Central Oyster Bar a few years ago, they had all the flavour of Evian and were not remotely comparable to British native oysters
Kurlansky's wonderful feast concludes on a depressing note. He gloomily records the destruction of the New York oyster due to overfishing and contamination. Even in the 1970s, asbestos, solvents, heavy metals and the defoliant Agent Orange were casually dumped in the Hudson River. Recently, a few oysters (sadly inedible) have returned to their former harbour home, once glutted with "a treasure more precious than pearls".
Christopher Hirst was recently named as Glenfiddich Food Writer of the YearReuse content