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.”
“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
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.