The Big Oyster

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...

(The entire section is 1503 words.)