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THE OYSTER IN NEW YORK

By Dina Di Maio

February 13, 2008

Today, when asked what is the quintessential New York food, most people will answer bagels, pizza, or hot dogs.  But prior to the early twentieth century, that answer would have been oysters.  What, oysters?  Not cheesecake?  Not knishes?  Not soft pretzels?  New York City is known as the Big Apple, but “the Big Oyster?”  According to Mark Kurlansky’s The Big Oyster: History on the Half Shell, New York once was just that.  Where does the oyster enter into New York City history?  Unlike bagels, pizza, hot dogs, knishes and cheesecake, oysters were indigenous to the waters surrounding New York City.  The other foods were created by the various ethnic groups that inhabited New York—the Germans, Jews and Italians.  Though few know that New York’s most notable nosh was the oyster, it should be common knowledge.  The oyster existed long before the Italians made their pizza pies and Jews made bagels—and long before these groups arrived on New York soil.  History books remind us of New York’s bivalve past.  New York Times writer Joseph Mitchell wrote about their legacy in the 1950s.   But Kurlansky’s book is the quintessential account of New York’s oysters.  And of course as is evidenced in Kurlansky’s book, if one read old cookbooks from New York, one would know the importance of oysters to the New York diet.  But before they became a memory and people traded in oyster stew for matzo ball soup, they were a delicacy.

Before the Dutch arrived in New York in the 1600s, the first “native New Yorkers,” the Lenape tribe, ate oysters, leaving the evidence of the city’s first skyscrapers discarded on the banks in piles that archaeologists later called shell middens.1 The oldest, in Dobbs Ferry, dates to 6950 B.C.2 Pearl Street is named for a midden and a large one existed where Canal Street and the Bowery intersect.3 Though many middens were destroyed through the years, some still exist and others are being serendipitously found. In 1988, for example, one was uncovered during repair of the Metro North Railroad.4

The Dutch in New Amsterdam continued the oystering tradition of the Lenape. Since oysters were so abundant, anyone could go to the water and collect their own.5 In fact, the Dutch called Ellis Island “Oyster Island” and Liberty Island “Great Oyster Island.”6 During the late eighteenth century, oysters were sold from street carts or by boats.7 Pickled oysters were sold to the West Indies.8 In 1763, the first of many oyster cellars was opened, an oyster restaurant in the basement of a building on Broad Street.9 Every kind of oyster concoction was created, from oyster stew to oyster pie.

The oyster, as ubiquitous as the New York City roach, was a cheap food.10 The highest numbers of oysters were around Staten Island—in the Lower Bay, especially Raritan Bay.11 However, unlike the roach, the oyster was not as hardy.  Due to over-dredging, the oyster numbers dwindled as early as the 1820s.12 That’s when oyster farming allowed New Yorkers to continue their mollusk habit.  Oysters were brought up from the Chesapeake Bay and then farmed, or “bedded,” as is the proper term.13 In the 1850s, oystering became one of the area’s biggest businesses with nearly a thousand men working on the oyster farms.14 Prior to 1855, anyone could go could out in the water and get oysters, but that year, New York State granted leases of the ocean bottom so farmers would have their own sections.15 Once again oysters thrived in the Hudson and surrounding waters, mostly around Staten Island, where some of the richest men between 1860 and 1890 were bedders.16 Once the Erie Canal was completed in 1825, the oyster trade boomed,17 bringing fresh oysters packed in salt in barrels upstate and west.18 New York City, at this time, was on its way to becoming the metropolis we know (and love) today.

Oystering was a popular trade among the African American community. Free African Americans opened oyster bars on Canal Street, increasingly after New York ended slavery in 1827.19 Here, the rough and tumble crowd could get “all you can eat oysters” for six cents, a deal called the “Canal Street Plan.”20 In 1825, Thomas Downing, an African American born free in Virginia, opened an oyster bar for the wealthy.21 He moved to New York where he would take a skiff out and tong,22 using a long iron tool with a wooden handle to comb the sea bottom looking for oysters.23 From 1830 to 1860, Downing’s was the place to be, and in 1842 he even catered the Boz Ball which was given in honor of Charles Dickens, whose nickname was “Boz.” 24

The oyster was usually eaten raw, but also was cooked in a number of ways.  At Downing’s, oysters were fried, stewed or steamed.25 There were various types of oysters that are now extinct, like one called Rockaways.26 The most-demanded type of oyster was the Bluepoint.27 The original Bluepoint was from the Great South Bay in Long Island, but after it became extinct—around the 1870s—farmers sold the Chesapeake oysters as “Bluepoints.”28 (A law passed in 1908 assured that only oysters that spent at least three months in Great South Bay could be called Bluepoints.29)

In 1842, New York consumed an unbelievable $6 million worth of oysters.30 By 1860, the New York oyster business had sold more than 12 million oysters a year.31 The late 1800s saw families eating oysters twice a week.32 By 1880, New York produced 700 million oysters annually.33 New York was the oyster capital of the world.34 That’s a lot for a city that now has virtually no remnants of its oyster-obsessed past.

What made the New York City oyster disappear?  The same thing that has contributed to global warming:  man’s overuse of his environment.  Over time, the waters around the Big Apple became polluted due to industrialization and garbage disposal.35 In 1913, the Grand Central Oyster Bar opened but it didn’t serve New York oysters.36 In 1916, a typhoid epidemic was linked to oysters, and a ban on oystering followed.37 The industry that had made so many wealthy and famous died overnight.  Oysters on menus now came from other places.  Joseph Mitchell wrote in 1951 about old men who used to be bedders. They would go out when it was cold and oysters were most safe and tong them as they once had done for a living.38

Congress passed the Clean Water Act in 1972 in order to make all waters in the country cleaner for fishing and recreation.39 Although today, one cannot find the New York oyster on a menu, one can find oysters.  The Grand Central Oyster Bar serves its two signature oyster dishes, oyster stew and oyster pan roast.40 In addition, one can choose from 30 types of oysters from the raw bar.41 Until the city’s waterways are clean enough for the New York oyster to once again survive and thrive, that will have to do.  Or else one can just fahgetaboutit and have a bagel with schmear.

1 Kurlansky, Mark.  The Big Oyster:  History on the Half Shell.  New York:  Ballantine Books, 2006, 3-11.

2Ibid, 15.

3 Ibid, 12.

4 Ibid, 13-15.

5 Ibid, 36.

6 Mitchell, Joseph.  Up in the Old Hotel. New York:  Vintage Books, 1993, 469.

7 Kurlansky 65.

8 Ibid, 77.

9 Ibid, 82.

10 Mitchell 469.

11 Ibid, 516.

12 Schwartz, Arthur.  Arthur Schwartz’s New York City Food:  An Opinionated History and More Than 100 Legendary Recipes.  New York:  Stewart, Tabori & Chang, 2004, 29.

13 Mitchell 470.

14 Burrows, Edwin G. and Mike Wallace, Gotham:  A History of New York City to 1898.  New York:  Oxford University Press, 1999, 662.

15 Jacobsen, Rowan.  A Geography of Oysters:  The Connoisseur’s Guide to Oyster Eating  in North America. New York:  Bloomsbury, 2007, 58.

16 Mitchell 470-1.

17 Kurlansky 104-5.

18 O’Neill, Molly.  New York Cookbook.  New York:  Workman Publishing, 1992, 193.

19 Schwartz 30.

20 O’Neill 193.

21 Kurlansky 166-7.

22 Ibid.

23 Burrows 662.

24 Kurlansky 162-8.

25 Ibid, 169.

26 Schwartz 30.

27 Jacobsen 120.

28 Ibid, 119.

29 Ibid, 120.

30 Kurlansky 172.

31 Ibid, 184.

32 Ibid, 214.

33 Ibid, 244.

34 Ibid, 184.

35 Ibid, 248-263.

36 Ibid, 265.

37 Mitchell 471.

38 Ibid.

39 Kurlansky 276.

40 O’Neill 370.