Review: The Big Oyster by Mark Kurlansky

the big oysterThe Big Oyster: A Molluscular History of New York [2006] – ★★★★★

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” [2006: xvi], so begins this marvellous non-fiction book by Mark Kurlansky, who is also the author of such popular books as Cod [1997] and Salt [2002]. The Big Oyster tells the story of the city of New York through the prism of once one of its most famous and prized commodities – its unparalleled oysters. Currently, New York is known for its skyscrapers, its shopping and its business (among other things), but for a long time in history when you thought of New York, you first thought of its delicious and plentiful oysters [2006: xvii]. There was, indeed, a time when New York was known for its “sweet air”, enviable water and tidal systems, and its marine produce, especially its oysters. Through engaging historical accounts, literary anecdotes, culinary recipes and some of the most famous New Yorkers, Kurlansky tells a story of New York like you have never read or known it before and one we should never forget, especially in today’s ever-rising environmental and climate change concerns. 

Mark Kurlansky starts his account with the year 1609, when “Henry Hudson, a British explorer employed by the Dutch, sailed into New York Harbour….” [Kurlansky, 2006: 4]. The area surrounding present-day New York was a different world back then: settled by native Lenapes, who also consumed oysters, and abundant in natural beauty and resources. Kurlansky paints New York as viewed by the first Dutch settlers (it was called New Amsterdam) and talks about the harvesting of oysters by the native population and the Dutch. The author then talks about the increasing “commercialisation” of oysters in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries when New York was already British. At that point New York was slowly turning into “the leading American city for oyster and alcohol consumption” [2006: 65]. The book talks of the many taverns in the city that opened to sell their cheap and unparalleled oysters, as well as details the state of oysters during the American Revolution, and how increased travel and technological developments, such as the invention of steamboats and railroads, affected New York’s oysters. 

One of the great things about Kurlansky’s book is that it is never a dry historical account. He talks about the nature and unique characteristics of oysters, whose predecessors emerged in the Cambrian period 520 million years ago, and demonstrates the various uses of oysters through changing culinary traditions. There are many recipes in the book, and, as we read the mouth-watering descriptions, there is also much “linguistic” trivia to be found and we can discover how some of the most famous streets in New York got their names. Washington Irving, Charles Dickens and Edgar Allan Poe all had their say on the ways of Manhattan, and on the nature and popularity of oysters; the inclusion of their illuminating accounts is also what makes The Big Oyster such a great book. 

The combination of having reputably the best oysters in the world in what had become unarguably the greatest port in the world made New York City for an entire century the world’s oyster capital

[Kurlansky, 2006: 113].

fresh oysters posterThere is definitely much in the book about the economic or business side of oysters production, and it is interesting to get to know that once oysters were the very synonym of poverty (they were so cheap!). Then rolls the year 1830, and people started thinking about recreating oysters because they had disappeared from some New York areas due to the increased industrialisation. Kurlansky is right to point out that “little is learned about a species until it is faced with extinction” [2006: 114]. Oysters became better known at that point and the commercial battles for them have started. They became overharvested because they were also shipped in very large quantities abroad. The book’s final pages are dedicated to the topic of the eradication of oysters from their natural habitats around New York City because of many factors, including the rapidly growing population that meant the growth of unhealthy slums, uncontrolled and inconsiderate garbage dumping (including sewage problems), and the demand for good-quality oysters that could hardly be met (let alone the link of oysters to dangerous diseases because of the increasingly polluted waters). The increased industrialisation of the 1870s meant the slow disappearance of a species that called New York City its home for such a long time. 

The Big Oyster is an engaging, quirky historical account of one of the most famous cities in the world told through the story of once one of the most misunderstood salt-water mollusc. Both informative and fun, the short book is a very transportive experience that clearly demonstrates that important role of oysters in the history of New York City. As Kurlansky concludes, “the great and unnatural city was built at the site of a natural wonder…the lowly oysters working at the bottom were a treasure more precious than pearls” [2006: 280]. It is hard not to agree with Kurlansky upon finishing this book. Oysters should have been cherished and preserved, not least because they act as water filters and do nature much good. These seemingly unassuming “shells” are, in fact, complicated living organisms and New York was their home where they felt the best.

4 thoughts on “Review: The Big Oyster by Mark Kurlansky

  1. I’ve read a few books about the history of New York City, but I never imagined a book analyzing its history from the perspective of oysters. It is interesting, and I like when authors take a big topic and look at it from the lens of one small aspect of it.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Wow, I never would’ve thought I’d be interested in reading about oysters, but this book sounds interesting and very well done! It’s impressive that it doesn’t become bogged down with dry information, and it sounds like a fascinating approach to New York history. I’m glad you enjoyed this one!

    Liked by 1 person

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