The rich history (food-wise and history-wise) of the oyster
One of the best things about being on Block Island in the winter is the ability to eat fresh oysters from the Great Salt Pond, as well as having the time to hunker down with some good books. For many the coming holidays will feature this delectable bi-valve of the ostreidae family. However many of us don’t really know much more about oysters than that they taste good (to some) or that they are best eaten in months containing the letter “r,” although they might not know why.
The coastal waters of the United States used to be replete with vast oyster beds. In the early stages of colonization, oysters were a cheap and plentiful foodstuff. Our first book, Mark Kurlansky’s “The Big Oyster: History on the Half Shell” (2006 Penguin books) takes a look back to those years. His focus is the oyster beds in and around what was then a very young New York City. The result is that the book is more of a history of the region than it is explicitly about the science of the oyster. But that’s okay, this reader, like many others schooled in the United States, knows all about the history of Boston, but really, very little about New York City, which was an enclave of the British during the American Revolution.
At any rate, the oyster beds in and around New York were an important source of food, for both rich and poor. And people slurped them up, or down, that is, so much so that those once teeming beds were denuded of their abilities to sustain themselves and eventually disappeared. The young city’s struggle with growth also led to the pollution of local waterways that fed the estuaries where the oysters grew. Streams in Manhattan (who knew there were streams in Manhattan?) became so polluted with human excrement that they appear to simply have been covered up or filled in.
Evidently some of the history presented by Kurlansky doesn’t stand up to the scrutiny of some historians. Reviews on Amazon indicate that there may be a few factual errors. For example the author refers to a son of George Washington, whose very existence at all has been questioned. These errors, however, would not make me want to discount the book in its entirety. As a lover of food history, I found it a fascinating read that I quite enjoyed.
Our next two books are by the author Rowan Jacobsen, and one grew out of the other. In “A Geography of Oysters: The Connoisseur’s Guide to Oyster Eating in North America” (2008) and “The Living Shore: Rediscovering a Lost World” (2009). Jacobsen’s book jackets describe the author as one who “writes about food, the environment and the connections between the two,” and it’s something he does in a very entertaining way.
“The Living Shore,” as mentioned above, grew out of Jacobsen’s first oyster book. It is a slim volume, only about 150 pages. In the first book, the author discovers the diminutive “Oly” short for the Olympia oyster, which is native to the west coast of our continent, and has all but disappeared. In this book he follows a team of researchers in the Vancouver area as they try to find beds of this native treasure and to determine how to replicate the areas in which they thrive, in large part as an attempt to bring them back.
This book is not just about the expedition, though. Like Kurlansky’s book, this one is chock full of history, only about San Francisco, not New York. At least it starts out in San Francisco. At the time of the gold rush, when, he posits, those oystering may have made more money than those mining for gold. Oysters being the celebratory food that they are, local supplies quickly ran out and the hunt for new beds began. Those beds too were depleted and many of those that weren’t, fell prey to the effects of industries upstream that flooded and polluted their delicate environments.
“Geography” has three sections, with the first being about the five species of oysters that can be found in the Unites States, although not all of them are native. This section is the scientific one, explaining the life cycle of the oyster, oyster farming methods and the ecological importance of oyster reefs. But, before the science starts, Jacobsen hilariously describes how he came to love eating them himself. It was partially on a dare by younger siblings, but quickly morphed into a passion for eating as many of them as he could. His description of the trepidation that he felt when coming face to face with his first oyster on the half-shell will ring familiar with any and all who have themselves decided to see what we may have been missing out on while others are tilting their heads back and happily letting the still living creatures enter their gullets. Do you chew?
The second section is called “The Oyster Appellations of North America,” and the author describes the many areas that oysters are currently being either grown on farms or where they grow in the wild. Terroir is as important to oyster quality and flavor as it is to wine, the author explains to us, and he describes for the reader the various qualities that each region has to offer. He doesn’t touch on Block Island (his loss), but he does have a section on other areas of Rhode Island, and the reader may take a lot of local pride in what our tiny state produces.
The third section of the book is entitled “Everything you wanted to know about oysters but were afraid to ask.” This section has 21 recipes for those that prefer their oysters to be cooked, as well as wine pairings to go with them. If you aren’t familiar with how to shuck one, you can learn out how to do that too.
My favorite aspect of this book though is the descriptions of the ecological importance of oysters. It is an area that most would be truly surprised by. Oyster reefs are evidently as important to northern waters as coral reefs are to southern ones, and provide much the same functions: habitats and breeding grounds for a whole contingent of marine organisms. Oyster reefs also play (or used to) a vital role in the maintenance of our coasts, preventing erosion and buffering the land from waves and weather, much the same way that coastal wetlands do. They are vital for maintaining clean water in our estuaries and shallow salt ponds by filtering some 30 to 50 gallons of water a day each.
These latter aspects of oyster ecology should be very interesting to Block Islanders seeking to preserve the Great Salt Pond and by those who may be following, however tangentially the attempts to create a sanctuary oyster reef here. We read about the importance of cultch and, if you read this book, I bet you will never throw away an oyster shell again, but instead take the shells back to where you found them.
Perhaps you’ll even create your own reef.