Uh-oh, it looks like your Internet Explorer is out of date.

For a better shopping experience, please upgrade now.

The Big Oyster: History on the Half Shell

The Big Oyster: History on the Half Shell

4.0 21
by Mark Kurlansky

See All Formats & Editions

“Part treatise, part miscellany, unfailingly entertaining.”
–The New York Times

“A small pearl of a book . . . a great tale of the growth of a modern city as seen through the rise and fall of the lowly oyster.”
–Rocky Mountain News

Award-winning author Mark Kurlansky tells the remarkable story of New York


“Part treatise, part miscellany, unfailingly entertaining.”
–The New York Times

“A small pearl of a book . . . a great tale of the growth of a modern city as seen through the rise and fall of the lowly oyster.”
–Rocky Mountain News

Award-winning author Mark Kurlansky tells the remarkable story of New York by following the trajectory of one of its most fascinating inhabitants–the oyster.
For centuries New York was famous for this particular shellfish, which until the early 1900s played such a dominant a role in the city’s life that the abundant bivalves were Gotham’s most celebrated export, a staple food for all classes, and a natural filtration system for the city’s congested waterways.

Filled with cultural, historical, and culinary insight–along with historic recipes, maps, drawings, and photos–this dynamic narrative sweeps readers from the seventeenth-century founding of New York to the death of its oyster beds and the rise of America’s environmentalist movement, from the oyster cellars of the rough-and-tumble Five Points slums to Manhattan’s Gilded Age dining chambers. With The Big Oyster, Mark Kurlansky serves up history at its most engrossing, entertaining, and delicious.

“Suffused with [Kurlansky’s] pleasure in exploring the city across ground that hasn’t already been covered with other writers’ footprints.”
Los Angeles Times Book Review

“Fascinating stuff . . . [Kurlansky] has a keen eye for odd facts and natural detail.”
The Wall Street Journal

“Kurlansky packs his breezy book with terrific anecdotes.”
Entertainment Weekly

“Magnificent . . . a towering accomplishment.”
Associated Press

Editorial Reviews

With Cod and Salt, author Mark Kurlansky proved that even the most ubiquitous foodstuff can serve as a subject for choice nonfiction. With this book, he takes a step toward prime delicacies.At first glance, this history of oysters in New York City seems fixed on a topic too slender for book-length treatment, but Kurlansky's richly anecdotal narrative convinces otherwise. Oysters and the city were once almost synonymous; the huge oyster beds on the Hudson contained half of the world's supplies. The Big Oyster is part diverting history and part cautionary tale: The exhaustion of New York's oyster beds was a needless environmental crime. Exquisite savor.
William Grimes
The culture of the oyster cellar also provides a feast for the author, who notes, shrewdly, that the oyster resisted the usual status markers assigned to food. Although cheap, it was consumed by rich and poor alike, sometimes at the same street stalls. Unlike the lobster or the canvasback duck, its value was not a function of scarcity. "It was one of the few moments in culinary history," he writes of the second half of the 19th century, "when a single food, served in more or less the same preparations, was commonplace for all socioeconomic levels."
— The New York Times
Publishers Weekly
Here's a chatty, free-wheeling history of New York City told from the humble perspective of the once copious, eagerly consumed, now decimated eastern oyster (Crassostrea virginicas). Research addict Kurlansky (Cod, etc.) starts from the earliest evidence of Lenape oyster middens, or beds, discovered by explorer Henry Hudson and others as evidence that natives enjoyed the shellfish as a delicacy, much as the Europeans did. When the Dutch arrived, the estuary of the lower Hudson, with its rich confluence of rivers, contained 350 square miles of oyster beds-"fully half of the world's oysters." The huge oyster stores contributed mightily to the mercantile wealth and natural renown of New Amsterdam, then inherited by the British, who were crazy about oysters; pickled oysters became an important trade with British West Indies slave plantations. While cheap, oysters appealed equally to the rich and poor, prompting famous establishments such as black-owned Downing's oyster cellar and Delmonico's (the enterprising author handily supplies historic recipes). The exhaustion of the city's oyster beds and pollution by sewage effectively eclipsed the consumption of local oysters by the 1920s, yet the lowly oyster still promotes the health of the waterways by its natural filtering system as well as indicating the purity of the water. Kurlansky's history digresses all over the place, and sparkles. Agent, Charlotte Sheedy. (Mar.) Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
Award-winning writer Kurlansky (Salt) again traces the path of one comestible in order to tell a myriad of related histories. This highly original work combines ecological, medical, economic, and political stories to encompass the role that oysters have played in the life of New York City. Beginning with the Lenape inhabitants encountered by European explorers of the pre-urban area and continuing to the 1930s, Kurlansky has many a tale to tell. With the arrival first of the Dutch and then the British in the 17th century, oyster harvesting from the rich Hudson River estuary became a thriving commercial enterprise. Although we may think of the oyster now as an indulgence of the wealthy, Kurlansky shows how the bivalve mollusks were in fact a staple enjoyed in abundance by the working classes in centuries past. It was pollution, born of massive industrial development and population growth, that contaminated the waters surrounding New York City, ultimately making the surviving oysters unsuitable for consumption. The 1920s saw the closure of local oyster beds, one after another, and thus the closure of the once booming New York oyster industry. Kurlansky has produced a tasty mixture of history and analysis, larded with illustrations. The result will appeal to a wide range of appetites. For all public and undergraduate libraries.-Kristin Whitehair, Kansas State Univ., Manhattan Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.
School Library Journal
Adult/High School-Once again Kurlansky uses an important natural resource as the focus of an inviting social and economic history. This time the topic is oysters native to the New York Harbor area, where once upon a time a pristine estuary, beautifully evoked by the author, created an ideal habitat. Oysters thrived there for centuries in enormous populations that were easily harvested, literally by the armful. When Western explorers led by Henry Hudson arrived in the early 1600s, gifts offered by initially friendly Native peoples included welcome supplies of the shellfish, a longtime favorite food item in Europe. (One of several dozen recipes in the book is a Middle English description of cooking "Oystres in grave," dating from the 15th century.) The succulent bivalves became internationally famous and were popular with both rich and poor; specialized eateries, the city's famous oyster cellars, were established to meet the demand. The market for oysters boomed and kept booming-until waterfront pollution destroyed the abundant beds. This ecological cautionary tale is enriched by wide-ranging narratives about the customs and politics of earlier times, all cleverly tied to oyster consumption and related in breezy, sparkling prose.-Starr E. Smith, Fairfax County Public Library, VA Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
Kurlansky (Boogaloo on Second Avenue, 2005, etc.) takes a fresh look at the tasty, once plentiful mollusk in this stimulating, often fascinating saga. In describing the rise and fall of the oyster industry in New York, Kurlansky delivers an insightful history of the city itself, from the day in 1609 when Henry Hudson first sailed into New York Harbor (where he was promptly offered oysters by the resident Lenni Lenape Indians) through the inexorable pollution of New York's once teeming oyster beds, resulting in their closing by 1930. New Yorkers may be surprised to learn just how plentiful oysters were. One biologist claimed that New York Harbor once contained half the world's oysters, and, by 1880, with the help of scientific "cultivation," New York's waters were producing 700 million oysters a year. Small wonder that oyster stands and oyster saloons were ubiquitous in 19th-century New York. Kurlansky seasons his scholarship with colorful asides on everything from the birth of Delmonico's restaurant to the boisterous oyster-shucking contests that were once a staple of New York life. (In 1885, a shucker named Billy Lowney opened 100 oysters in three minutes, three seconds.) Many vintage oyster recipes are included, with some calling for more than one hundred oysters per recipe. While oysters are clearly the stars here, Kurlansky also offers some intriguing human portraits, from Charles Dickens, who preferred eating his oysters in dingy oyster cellars, to the corpulent Diamond Jim Brady, who was said to begin each meal with a gallon of orange juice and six dozen Lynnhaven oysters. Kurlansky serves up the heady story with trenchant prose and a knack for curious insight. True, after hearinghim describe the oyster's innards, you may not be rushing to the nearest oyster bar: "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."A compelling, highly readable treat, whether you partake of Ostreidae or not.
From the Publisher
Advance praise for The Big Oyster

“In his portrait of the once-famous oyster beds of New York Harbor, Kurlansky beautifully illustrates food’s ability to connect us deeply to our particular place in the world, and shows how our nourishment is so vitally tied to the health of the natural world.”
–Alice Waters

“Mark Kurlansky has done it again. The Big Oyster is a zesty love song to a bivalve and a city–intelligent, informative, and impossible to put down.”
–Nathaniel Philbrick, National Book Award—winning author of In the Heart of the Sea

Praise for Mark Kurlansky

1968: The Year That Rocked the World

“Memorable, essential, and in its own way wondrous.”
–The Boston Globe

Salt: A World History

“Bright writing and, most gratifyingly, an enveloping narrative.”
–San Francisco Chronicle

Cod: A Biography of the Fish That Changed the World

“This eminently readable book is a new tool for scanning world history.”
–The New York Times Book Review

Product Details

Books on Tape, Inc.
Publication date:
Edition description:

Read an Excerpt

The Big Oyster

By Mark Kurlansky

Random House

Mark Kurlansky
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0345476387

Chapter One

A Molluscular Life

Obviously, if you don't love life, you can't enjoy an oyster.
--Eleanor Clark, The Oysters of Locmariaquer, 1959

In 1609, when Henry Hudson, a British explorer employed by the Dutch, sailed into New York Harbor on his eighty-five-foot ship, Halve Maen, with a half-British, half-Dutch crew of sixteen, he found the same thing Mackay would two and a half centuries later--a local population with the habit of feasting on excellent New York Harbor oysters.

Hudson was a seventeenth-century man in search of a fifteenth-century dream. His employer, Holland, would soon be in its golden age, offering the world Rembrandt, the microscope, and the stock exchange, but not, as Hudson and his sponsors had hoped, a river through North America leading to China.

A water route to Chinese trade replacing the long, arduous Silk Road was a great dream of the Renaissance. The only alternative ever found was in 1499 when Vasco da Gama sailed from Portugal and went around Africa to the Indian Ocean. All of the westward voyages of exploration had ended in failure, with endless landmasses standing in the way between Europe and China. Cabot was stopped by Canada in the north, Verrazano was stopped by the United States farther south, Columbus by Central America in the middle, and Magellan showed that it was a hopelessly long way around South America to the south. Only one idea still held any possibility and that was a passage through arctic waters.

And so Hudson was essentially an arctic explorer. In fact, he was a failed arctic explorer. On his first voyage for the British he sailed straight north, attempting to travel beyond the ice and down the other side of the globe. The plan was geographically astute but meteorologically absurd and he was stopped by ice. At the point he could go no farther, his seventy-foot wooden vessel was only six hundred miles short of Robert E. Peary's 1909 achievement, reaching the North Pole. His second voyage, heading northeast over Russia, was also stopped by ice. At this point his British sponsor, the Muscovy Company, dropped him.

A new idea came along. In the early seventeenth century, Captain John Smith, the ruggedly handsome legendary adventurer famous for his conquests both military and sexual, was the great promoter of European settlement in North America. He charted the coastline, reported on his findings, and pitched North America to any Englishman who would listen. He was to play a role in the promoting of Britain's two leading North American colonies, Virginia and Massachusetts. Hudson knew Smith and they corresponded in 1608, by which time four-fifths of Smith's 1607 Virginia settlers had already died. There was a growing belief that North America was uninhabitable in the winter. But Smith's contagious enthusiasm never faltered. Not only did he believe in North American settlement--this entire debate taking place as if no one was already living there--but his maps and letters to Hudson promoted an alternative to the theory that a water route to China could be found north of Canada--the so-called Northwest Passage. Smith's theory was that somewhere north of Virginia a major river connected the Atlantic to the Sea of Cathay.

This is a case of people hearing only what they want to hear. Smith's Chinese sea was presumably the Pacific Ocean, but rivers are not known to flow from one sea to another. Smith's theory was based on statements from northern tribes who trapped for fur. They talked of an ocean that could be reached from a river. They probably said nothing about Cathay, China, which was an obsession of Europeans, not North Americans. It seems likely that the North Americans were talking about how they could travel up the Hudson and follow the Mohawk tributary and with a short land portage--for a canoe--arrive at the Great Lakes. Standing on the shore of Lake Erie, one can have the impression of being on the coast of a vast sea. Furthermore, the currents of the Hudson are so multidirectional, the salty ocean water travels so far inland, that according to Indian legend, the first inhabitants came to the Hudson in search of a river that ran two ways, as though it flowed into seas at both ends. Whether such early Indian explorers existed, the Europeans came looking for exactly that.

Hudson, the out-of-work explorer, had something to sell: a possible new passage to China. The Muscovy Company had listened and voted against the project. But Britain's new and fast-growing competitor, Holland, was interested. The Vernenigde Oostindische Compagnie, or VOC, known in English as the Dutch East India Company, hired him. The Dutch were not interested in new theories from John Smith or Henry Hudson. They hired Hudson to search for the northeastern passage, a route through the ice floes north of Russia. Hudson had no faith in this northeastern theory, but the VOC gave him a commission with a new ship, and so he took it and sailed north until well out of the view of Dutchmen. Then he picked up a westerly gale and crossed the Atlantic, thousands of miles in the opposite direction of his orders, and reached the North American coast off Newfoundland.

More than a century after John Cabot's voyage, this was a well-known route. Hudson then followed the coastline south to Cape Hatteras and the mouth of the Chesapeake within miles of his friend Smith at Jamestown but, sailing in a Dutch vessel, did not visit the British settlement. Perhaps he needed to locate Smith's Jamestown to find his bearing on Smith's maps. Then he began exploring the coastline for a river to China.

In this search he became the first European to enter Delaware Bay. But seeing the shallow waters, shoals, and bars at the mouth of the Delaware, Hudson felt certain that this was not a river great enough to cut through North America to China. He continued on, viewing the forest lands of an unknown continent off the port side, seemingly uninhabited, with only an occasional bird chirp for counterpoint to the rolling surf on sandy beaches and the creaks in the Half Moon's rigging.

Then, rounding a flat, sandy, narrow peninsula, today accurately labeled Sandy Hook, Hudson and his men, almost as if falling through a keyhole, found themselves in another world. The wide expanse of water, one hundred square miles, lay flat, sheltered by the bluffs of Staten Island and the rolling hills of Brooklyn. Sandy Hook on the port and the shoals of Rockaway Peninsula on the starboard, an ideal barrier furnished with several channels, protected the opening. When they looked into the water, they could see large fish following them.

This was the place. From all directions they saw rivers pouring into the bay. If there were a chasm in the heart of North America opening up a waterway all the way to China, this is what it would look like.

Hudson identified three "great rivers." They were probably Raritan Bay, which separates New Jersey and Staten Island, the opening to the Upper Harbor, and the Rockaway Inlet on the Brooklyn--Queens shore of Long Island. He had not yet sailed through the narrow opening between Staten Island and Brooklyn--not yet seen the Upper Bay, the Hudson River, the Harlem River, and the East River that connects with Long Island Sound. He had not yet seen the lush, green, rocky island of ponds and streams in the middle of the estuary.

Hudson sent a landing party ashore on Staten Island. It was late summer and the plum trees and grapevines were bearing fruit. Immediately upon landing, as though Hudson's crew had been expected, as though invited, people dressed in animal skins appeared to welcome them. These people in animal skins saw that the leader of the people who arrived in the floating house wore a red coat that sparkled with gold lace.

In what would become a New York tradition, commerce instantly began. The Europeans in red had tools, while the skin-clad Americans offered hemp, beans, and a local delicacy--oysters. The Europeans thought they were getting much better value than they were giving, but the Americans may have thought the same thing.

Hudson and his men had no idea with whom they were trading. They reported that the people in skins were friendly and polite but not to be trusted. These people the Europeans distrusted called their land Lenapehoking, the land of the Lenape. The Lenape thought they knew their visitors. They were a people they called in their language shouwunnock, which meant "Salty People." The grandparents of the Lenape who saw Hudson may have seen an earlier Salty Person, the Italian, Giovanni da Verrazano, sailing the coast with his crew for Francis I, king of France, in 1524. Verrazano had chosen to moor his ship off Staten Island, farther up than Hudson, in the narrow opening that bears his name and where Staten Island is now connected to Brooklyn by a bridge. Verrazano could see the second interior bay with its wide rivers and well-placed island and described the bay as "a pleasant lake." He named it Santa Margarita after the sister of his patron, Francis. "We passed up with our boat only into the said river, and saw the country very well peopled. The people are almost like unto the others, and clad with feathers of fowls of divers colors. They came toward us very cheerfully, making great shouts of admiration, showing us where we might come to land most safely with our boat."

But soon shifting winds forced the Europeans, with great reluctance, to return to their ship and sail on. This was probably the first sighting of Salty People by the inhabitants of the harbor, although their grandparents may also have seen Esteban Gomez, a Portuguese explorer who passed this way. An early Portuguese map suggests that Europeans, probably either Portuguese or Basque fishermen, may have sailed to this place at the time of Columbus. Some of those who now met Hudson and his crew may have heard of or even had contact with the Frenchman Samuel de Champlain, who only a few months earlier had traveled south from what is now Canada to the lake that is named after him. Jamestown, near the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay, was just south of the Lenapes' Delaware Bay and was already two years old when Hudson arrived in New York. By the time Hudson arrived, the Lenapes knew Salty People when they saw them. They had been coming for a long time with very little consequence.

This group stayed longer than the others. They explored the upper harbor, then chose the river west of the island and sailed up what is now called the Hudson as far as what is now Albany. From there, it must have been clear that this narrowing river was not leading to China and they left.

In the Lenape language, lenape translates as "the common man." Sometimes they called themselves Lenni Lenape, which means "we, the people." Europeans have labeled the language and the people Delaware. They were a loose confederation of populations living between the South River, the Delaware, and the North River, the Hudson. Until the twentieth century, it was believed that between eight and twelve thousand such people lived in what is today Delaware, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, New York, and Connecticut when Hudson arrived. But these low estimates were based on the count in the year 1700, which was three thousand. Starting in 1633, the Lenape had already been through at least fourteen epidemics of such European diseases as smallpox, malaria, and measles. More recently, archaeologists have concluded that as many as fifteen thousand lived in what is today New York City and possibly as many as fifty thousand others lived in the Lenape region.

Lenape villages were busy little clusters of longhouses made of bark and grass. They lived on fishing and hunting, and gathering nuts, fruit, and shellfish. They made clothes of cured deer and elk skins. In spring, coastal Lenapes set up large fishing camps. They trapped, netted, and speared shad and other river fish. They had monogamous marriages, but sexual relations between the unmarried were acceptable until Europeans introduced venereal diseases. The dead were greatly mourned. Sometimes mourners would blacken their faces for an entire year. The dead, it was believed, traveled along a star path. Each star in the Milky Way was believed to be a footprint.

The Lenape believed that their history began when Kishelemukong, the creator, brought a giant turtle up from the deep ocean. The back of the turtle grew into a vast island, North America. They believed they had come to the mid-Atlantic from farther west and archaeologists agree, saying they arrived at the Atlantic three thousand years ago.

There were three major groups of Lenape and numerous subdivisions within those. They had few unifying institutions except language, and even that broke down into dialects. One of the groups, the Munsey, which means "mountaineers," controlled the mountains near the headwaters of the Delaware. They also maintained hunting grounds in what is now the New York City area. It is the Munsey language that gave Manhattan and many other New York places their names. It is uncertain from which Munsey word the name Manhattan is derived. One theory is that it comes from the word manahactanienk, which means "place of inebriation," but another is that it comes from manahatouh, meaning "a place where wood is available for making bows and arrows." The even more prosaic possibility that is most often cited is that it comes from menatay, which simply means "island."

Lenape and Lenni Lenape are Munsey words. Many of the subgroups have become place names. On Long Island, the Canarsee, the Rockaways, and the Massapequas all spoke Munsey. The Raritans, Tappans, and Hackensacks, all of whom spoke Unami, a different language in the same family as Munsey, controlled different parts of Staten Island, northern Manhattan, the Bronx, and parts of New Jersey. All of these people and other locals such as the Wieckquaesgecks of Westchester, ate oysters, and some may have traveled some distance for them. The Lenape who gave Hudson his first taste of New York oysters were from what is now Yonkers.

We know that the Lenape ate copious quantities of oysters because oyster shells last a very long time and they left behind tremendous piles of them. These piles, containing thousands of shells, have been found throughout the New York City area. Archaeologists call them shell middens.


Excerpted from The Big Oyster by Mark Kurlansky Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Mark Kurlansky is the New York Times bestselling and James A. Beard Award--winning author of Cod: A Biography of the Fish That Changed the World, Salt: A World History, 1968: The Year That Rocked the World, and The Basque History of the World, as well as Boogaloo on 2nd Avenue (his debut novel), and several other books. He lives in New York City.

Mark Kurlansky is the New York Times bestselling and James A. Beard Award--winning author of Cod: A Biography of the Fish That Changed the World, Salt: A World History, 1968: The Year That Rocked the World, and The Basque History of the World, as well as Boogaloo on 2nd Avenue (his debut novel), and several other books. He lives in New York City.

Brief Biography

New York, NY
Date of Birth:
December 7, 1948
Place of Birth:
Hartford, CT
Butler University, B.A. in Theater, 1970

Customer Reviews

Average Review:

Post to your social network


Most Helpful Customer Reviews

See all customer reviews

The Big Oyster: History on the Half Shell 4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 21 reviews.
ckcSC More than 1 year ago
Being from the south I didn't think I would like the book too much but I was pleasantly surprised.I didn't realize that oysters played such a big role in the buliding of NY. A great read !!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
i received this book as a gift because the giver knows of my love of history and of New York City. I love the book but am curious about the reference to a son of George washington named Philip. I always understood the George had no biological children and none of Martha's children or grandchildren were named Philip as far as I have been able to acertain.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This book is great. I was fascinated by the story of the oyster and the author does an amazing job tracing New York City history through its oyster industry. A fun book. Only probelm...I am craving oysters all the time.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
linda6202 More than 1 year ago
This was a gift given to someone who loves oysters and also happens to love anything related to history. This book is the perfect combination of both. An enjoyable read.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
A well-written account of the history of New York City from the occupation of Manhatten by Native Americans until today, and how the abundance of multiple varieties of oysters in the waters of the Hudson and East Rivers, Sandy Hook, and the Long Island shore influenced the development of that city. The author relates how Native Americans in the area harvested oysters twelve inches in length in such quantities that mounds of those oyster shells they left behind are still visible today. The Dutch settlement of New Amsterdam in present day Lower Manhatten is covered in facinating detail. The author takes readers through the killing of the oyster beds in the late 1800's and early 1900's by pollution from raw sewage and industrial wastes to the efforts now to clean up those waters and revive the oyster beds. All in all, a facinating and informative book.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
She meowed and crept up on a mouse.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Just a question, are you mad at kaneki? When he joined you left and he seemed to feel bad because je thought you left cuz he joined. Are you okay with him?
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Hey - Wies