Kurlansky: The Big Oyster

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[[Category: Book Notes]]
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Current revision as of 00:39, 15 April 2009

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Mark Kurlansky, The Big Oyster : History on the Half Shell. New York : Ballantine Books, 2006. xx + 307 pages, with bibliography and index; illustrated with black-and-white line drawings, etchings, and photographs.

My attention is easily attracted by a quirky idea, and what could be more quirky, I thought, than a book about the history of oysters and New York City? Could even Mark Kurlansky, celebrated author of Salt, fill 300 pages with interesting and informative prose?

The answer is "yes". It was satisfying to find that this tasty morsel was filling but very digestible. That the history of oysters and of New York City are intimately connected we learn very quickly, and we know right away what the book is going to be about (even if we find it hard to believe).

The history of New York oysters is a history of New York itself – its wealth, its strength, its excitement, its greed, its thoughtlessness, its destructiveness, its blindness and – as any New Yorker will tell you – its filth. This is the history of the trashing of New York, the killing of its great estuary. [p. xvi]
Before the twentieth century, when people thought of New York, they thought of oysters. [p. xvii]
If eating an oyster is tasting the sea, eating a New York oyster was tasting New York Harbor, which became increasingly unappealing. [...] This is the story of how it happened. [p. xviii]

It's a very fair description. Kurlansky's thoughts and observations saunter through an historic landscape with the type of diversions one expects in a good conversation: following trains of thought through diverse but connected side-trips that remain at all times within shouting distance of the main topic: oysters.

We like cultural histories that incorporate science as an integral part of the culture. Kurlandky's scienticity is notable; he rarely misses an opportunity to fill out his discussion with something choice and scientific. He also tends to make it look effortless, as he does in this paragraph when the topic of pearls comes up, making it a perfect chance to clarify a few popular misconceptions.

Lustrous, bright, valuable pearls are found in an animal popularly known as a pearl oyster but known in biology as Meleagrana or Pintada. While being a bivalve whose shell bears a physical resemblance to an oyster shell, the pearl oyster, which is most commonly found in tropical waters, belongs to the family Pteridae, and not the family Ostreidae. A number of animals in this family have the characteristic that if an indigestible food particle – not a grain of sand, as is commonly believed – gets trapped in the shell, the animal will build up a coating of a calcium-carbonate crystal called argonite and a protein, conchiolin, the two materials it uses to build its shell. These two ingredients, in surrounding the particle, become nacre or mother-of-pearl. [p. 29]

Kurlansky doesn't simply relate the facts. He uses facts and anecdotes to assemble an engaging and compelling narrative about oysters and New York city and the people who gathered them and sold them and cooked them (sometimes) and ate them. He approaches his storytelling with a delightful balance of analysis and drama.

The New York of the second half of the nineteenth century was a city overtaken by oystermania. It was usual for a family to have two oyster dinners a week, one of which would be on Sunday. It was one of the few moments in culinary history when a single food, served in more or less the same preparations, was commonplace for all socio-economic levels. It was the food of Delmonico's and the food of the dangerous slum. The oyster remained inexpensive. Shucked oysters were sold by street vendors for twenty-five cents a quart. The poor person might eat raw oysters from a street stand or have a stew at the market – it was cheap enough – or a wealthy man might get the same raw oysters to start his meal or the same stew for a fish course at the most expensive restaurants. At Delmonico's, a serving of six or eight oysters, depending on the size, cost twenty-five cents. Or it would not be uncommon for the wealthy man to eat oysters from a street vendor at the Washington Market or in an oyster cellar. The next night he might be attending an extravagant banquet in honor of some notable and be served oysters again. [p. 214]

Sometimes just the facts can be interesting and telling – who would guess at the amazing number of oysters that were taken from New York Harbor during the height of the oyster craze? Still, facts must be organized and deployed in a way that makes sense and retains the interest of the reader. Kurlansky manages that task quite nicely.

By 1880, New York was the undisputed capital of history's greatest oyster boom in its golden age, which lasted until at least 1910. The oyster beds of the New York area were producing 700 million oysters a year. That is without including the oysters of New Jersey, Connecticut, Rhode Island, or eastern Long Island, all of which were sold in the New York City markets. [p. 244]

I believe I started reading this book with reasonably high expectations of what I might get from it, and I found my expectations easily exceeded by the time I had finished.

-- Notes by JNS

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