The Big Oyster

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1503

Mark Kurlansky is one of the first writers of popular history to successfully capitalize on the intense fascination that the focus of microhistory can generate about its subject. Microhistory is a relatively recent academic approach to the study of the past that concentrates on a single, often small and limited...

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Mark Kurlansky is one of the first writers of popular history to successfully capitalize on the intense fascination that the focus of microhistory can generate about its subject. Microhistory is a relatively recent academic approach to the study of the past that concentrates on a single, often small and limited subject, as a lens through which to illuminate a larger, more broadly defined issue. Two of the author’s previous books, Cod: A Biography of the Fish That Changed the World (1997) and Salt: A World History (2003), also use an eatable subject for his microhistorical approach.

In Cod, Kurlansky used a study of the codfish to explore the trade routes opened up by the search for the fish and the geopolitical offshoots of that exploration. He also provided a detailed examination of the codfish, its habits, and the habits of those who have eaten it through the ages. With Salt, he broadened his search and dealt with salt as a worldwide commodity and traced its gastronomical importance and economic influence through recorded history. In both books the detailed scrutiny of the microsubject, cod and salt, led him to research larger historical issues, periods, and locales.

The Big Oyster: History on the Half Shell employs the same methodical approach and again does so through a foodstuff, this time the oyster, but restricts the locale to primarily the Hudson River estuary. The time span is roughly from the time of Henry Hudson’s discovery of the river that bears his name, during the first decade of the seventeenth century, until the early twenty-first century. During those four hundred years, both the oysters in the estuary and the marine environment experienced violent degradation. For the most part, the oysters died out when they were overharvested and their breeding grounds destroyed by industrial waste and city garbage. Unfortunately, those that have survived have been rendered so toxic by pollutants that they are no longer eatable. This sad and enlightening story is set against the backdrop of New York City as it rises from a modest trading post at the edge of the far-flung Dutch empire to become one of the world’s most vibrant and influential cities.

The book’s design is straightforwardly chronological, opening with Hudson’s discovery and the arrival of the Dutch and their early settlement of what would become Manhattan and the surrounding boroughs. Kurlansky discusses the loss of the trading center to the British, their loss in turn to the fledgling American nation after the Revolutionary War, and the city’s expansion through the nineteenth and twentieth centuries to become the most important urban center in the United States. The narrative is enlivened with the personal stories of not the usual politicians and statesmen but of those most closely associated with the growing, processing, cooking, and eating of oysters. This microhistorical approach gives the reader a new and different understanding of the city and its growth.

Interlarded throughout this narrative is a running discussion of the bivalve, its natural history, gastronomical history, and social history. Readers will learn how it reproduces and grows, matures and ages, where it flourishes and does not, and how it has been harvested over the years. Also included is Kurlansky’s discussion of how oysters have been consumed through the agesraw, boiled, steamed, fried, and so on. Thoughtfully, he has also included some three dozen recipes, most of them historical, which he has conveniently indexed in the back of the book. Oysters also have a literary history and have been covered by such writers as the first century b.c.e. Roman Sergius Orata and the American food writer M. F. K. Fisher, whose Consider the Oyster (1941) forms one of the five volumes that make up her famous The Art of Eating (1954).

The oyster also has a social history, oddly enough occupying at the same time a place at both the tables of the rich and poor. Kurlansky points out that oysters could be had for pennies from street vendors or could actually be harvested by individuals from the common beds for the evening’s meal. On the other hand, since Roman times they have had a place of honor at the tables of the rich. Kurlansky recalls several anecdotes about the railroad magnet Diamond Jim Brady and his frequent companion actress Lillian Russell gorging themselves on meals at Rector’s, a New York eatery, and always beginning with a quantity of raw oysters on the half-shell.

The abundance of the oysters discovered by the Europeans who first landed on Manhattan Island was legendary, prompting Kurlansky to remark that before New York was the Big Apple it was the Big Oyster, thus giving this book its title. This book also could have been called “The bivalve (Crassostrea virginica) and the city (New York),” because it is the ingenious way Kurlansky weaves the two narratives, one on the rise and fall of the oyster and the other on the rise of the city, that makes this study of particular interest. The indigenous Lenape Indians clearly had been consuming oysters by the millions long before the arrival of the Dutch, as the middens of shells dotted around the coastline and discovered by those early settlers attest. Routinely, the early visitors to these shores write about the fecund oyster beds of the estuary that continued to produce millions of oysters right through the early years of the nineteenth century, when overharvesting required that they be stocked.

Still, by the beginning of the Civil War, New York was the oyster capital of the worldunfortunately, however, in shipping only, as the native beds were by then in decline. Industrial waste and the sheer tonnage of New York’s garbage finally did them in by the early years of the twentieth century, when the relaxation of environmental standards during World War II flooded the area with toxic materials still present in the waters. It is the size of the loss as much as anything that highlights the environmental disaster the book chronicles.

This cautionary talethe first section of the book’s title, “The Beds of Eden,” and the second half’s “The Shells of Sodom” tells it allis not accompanied by the screed that often accompanies a narrative of environmental despoliation with a condemnation of what takes its place. Kurlansky likes New York City and at times offers up reasons for applauding this particular history of the oyster. Oysters offered employment for African American oystermen and oyster shop owners as well as providing much-needed nourishment for the poor. Oysters and their export helped to publicize New York’s prominence. Unfortunately, the destruction of the beds did, in the end, more harm than good, as the disappearance of the oyster beds around the estuary also contributed to the worsening of the pollution of the waters.

Kurlansky mentions one estimate that if the original beds still survived, the oysters in themnatural cleansers of seawatercould clean up the current marine pollution in a matter of weeks. Also with the loss of the oyster, the inhabitants of the city lost something of their connection to the waterways that lie so close to them. For New Yorkers to lose their oysters was for them to lose their taste of the sea. In fact, this very notion of loss is one of the reasons Kurlansky wrote the book. He puts it this way: “How is it that a people living in the world’s greatest port, a city with no neighborhood that is far from the waterfront, a city whose location was chosen because of the sea, where 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?”

Is this putting too much emphasis on the little oyster to sustain such a large-scale historical analysis? Such a question might be asked of all microhistorical studies, but Kurlansky is very skillful in working his materialcod, salt, or now oystersin ways entertaining but also convincing enough to make his case. The oysters here are a reflector of the human attitudes that both destroyed them as well as built the city, and they reflect even larger-scale values that have informed a general American ideology toward nature and the idea of progress. By successfully focusing on an examination of the fate of the humble oyster in this one place over a three-hundred-year span, Kurlansky opens up the possibilities for doing the same kind of study using any number of similar small-scope objects.

From The Big Oyster, the reader learns about the fashioning of America’s greatest city and also about the natural history of this bivalve and something of how history has regarded oysters and their consumption. Like Eleanor Clark’s The Oysters of Locmariaquer (1964), for which reprint Kurlansky wrote an introduction and which his book in many ways resembles, The Big Oyster engages both the reader’s mind and senses. It is elegantly written, witty, and knowing, and at the same time wonderfully entertaining.

Bibliography

Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 43

Booklist 102, no. 3 (October 1, 2005): 4.

Kirkus Reviews 73, no. 20 (October 15, 2005): 1124.

Library Journal 131, no. 2 (February 1, 2006): 92.

The New York Times 155 (March 1, 2006): E1-E6.

The New York Times Book Review 155 (March 5, 2006): 1-7.

Publishers Weekly 252, no. 38 (September 26, 2005): 71.

The Times Literary Supplement, November 10, 2006, p. 32.

The Wall Street Journal 247, no. 57 (March 10, 2006): W4.

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