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Book Review: The Big Oyster by Mark Kurlansky
“The history of New York oysters is a history of New York itself..."
Posted on October 30, 2018
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Oysters are a great example of humanity’s complex relationship with food, where it comes from and why it has remained a popular food source throughout history.

The mention of an oyster can bring up the immense variety in flavours and textures that make it such an exciting culinary experience. Others think of it as a luxurious treat savoured for a celebration. However, did you know that oysters were not always synonymous with luxury?

If we go back in time we learn that oysters used to be common snack for the everyday New Yorker and were widely affordable to all classes. The Big Oyster by Mark Kurlansky is a must read for anyone who wants to learn about why this delicacy went from being a common snack to the very picture of fine dining.

Archaeologists have found that early North Americans consumed oysters long before colonizers arrived. Although not rich enough to sustain our complex dietary needs, oysters were often enjoyed as a true “taste of the sea.”

New York’s harbour shoreline is lovingly referred to as “the chemical coast” by locals. This was not always the case. In the 19th century, New York was the world’s largest producer of oysters, exporting them all over the world, in addition to meeting the demand for a city that consumed an average of 12 million oysters per year! It is no wonder then that eating oysters from this region grew out of style as harvesting methods become more aggressive to meet demand and as the water quality changed, negatively impacting oyster growth.

Piles of shells outside oysters houses under the Manhattan Bridge in 1937. Photo courtesy of The New York Times.

“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,” writes Mark Kurlansky.

As is common with most major cities, when New York began to develop over time, industry grew and environmental protection acts and standards followed in reaction to the destruction of public resources such as the population of their estuary. Although there is not enough space in this book review to give you any more details, I hope I was able to entice you enough to pick up a copy yourself and learn about the fascinating and intertwined world of New York City and the oyster.

Curious to learn more about Oyster lingo so you can impress your friends? Check out this quick video.

At Ocean Wise, WE LOVE OYSTERS, so we’ll leave you with some fun facts:

  1. Oysters can live an average of 12 years, but, as a common farmed seafood, most do not live past four years before they are harvested for human consumption.
  2. Oysters are filter feeders, which means that a farmer does not have to feed them to watch them grow. This makes oysters an excellent sustainable seafood option and a poster boy (poster shellfish?), if you will, for sustainable aquaculture.
  3. An oyster can filter anywhere from 30 to 50 gallons of water in a single day so they also clean the water and improve surrounding habitats wherever they are farmed.

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