Jul/Aug 2006  •   Reviews & Interviews

The Big Oyster: History on the Half Shell

Review by Ann Skea

The Big Oyster: History on the Half Shell.
Mark Kurlansky.
Random House. 2006. 224 pp.
ISBN 0 224 078232.

Up until the nineteenth century the oyster was thought to be a simple primitive creature.

So begins one early chapter of this book by Mark Kurlansky. And, if you enjoy oysters as a culinary delicacy, you would do well to stop reading right there and skip to the next chapter, because what follows is a detailed description of a complex, sensitive creature which we keep alive so that, complete with "a working brain, a stomach, intestines, liver and a still beating heart," we can swallow it whole. And some of them can grow to a foot long, which, as William Makepeace Thackeray once complained, was "like eating a baby."

In spite of all this, the shell middens left by our ancestors since the earliest times show that oysters have been an important part of the human diet for centuries. In fact, as Mark Kurlansky convincingly demonstrates, we can even trace the history of a city like New York by examining the parallel history of the oysters in the waters which surround it. Hence his subtitle for this book: New York in the World, A Molluscular History.

The Big Oyster tells you everything you ever wanted to know about oysters, and, in its litany of dates, weights, and farming techniques, rather more than is perhaps necessary or desirable. The focus of the book is obviously America, with occasional excursions into other lands, so I read with a constant question in my mind: "To what family does the oyster I have frequently enjoyed (but may no longer be able to stomach), belong?" i.e. the Sydney Rock Oyster. The answer is that it is unique to Australasia. This revelation came late in the book, by which time I had learned lots of fascinating facts, many of which I'm not sure I really wanted to know.

I learned, for example, that oysters are extraordinarily efficient sanitary workers, filtering out those deadly cholera and typhoid bacteria, as well as heavy metals, DDT etc, so well that they can be used to measure the pollution of our waterways. I learned that oysters are amazingly fecund. That in spite of the fact that both species look identical, they seem to know what to do and it takes only a few minutes for them to release enough sperm and eggs to produce billions of swimming larvae. I now know, too, that the pearl oyster is not really an oyster at all: just a rather unsavory cousin from another family.

So, The Big Oyster may put you off oysters, but if not, there are plenty of recipes here, culled from the best ancient and modern cookbooks, for you to try out.

Also, by the end of the book you will be superbly informed about the original inhabitants of the New York area. They were people with names such as Jonathan Swift might have borrowed for Gulliver's Travels: the Lanape people, whose culture was rich and diverse, ate copious quantities of oysters, the shells of which still lie beneath Manhattan, Rockaway, Bayswater, and many other city areas. They called the first Europeans to visit their shores the "Salty People," welcomed them and traded with them, but did not understand their concept of land ownership and had no resistance to their diseases. Gradually relationships between the Lenape and the "Salty People" soured, and eventually the protective wall that was built around New Amsterdam demonstrated the mistrust that came to exist between them.

In between telling us ALL about oysters, oyster collection, and oyster cultivation, Mark Kurlansky outlines the growth of New York city and its markets, the growth of the oyster trade interstate and overseas, the effect of the American Revolution on New York and its oysters, and the seemingly never-ending popularity of oyster stalls, oyster barges, oyster cuisine, and, for the poorest people, the availability of oysters as a cheap and not very nutritious food source. Sadly, he charts, too, the growing effects on the oysters of overpopulation and industrialization and the consequent pollution of the waterways in which they live.

So, in spite of the jokey chapter headings, the generous (overgenerous, even) larding of quotes at the head of each chapter, and the many curious and tempting recipes, the serious message of this book (as of Kurlansky's earlier book Cod) is depressing. The history of the oyster shows, quite clearly, how effectively we are destroying the natural world around us. So, what once seemed to be an inexhaustible supply of food is now an expensive delicacy and, unless we change our ways, the oyster will soon be off the menu for good. "If we had the ability to see deep into the water, it would have been different," Kurlansky suggests. Perhaps. But even the small changes we have made as we have become more environmentally conscious are not enough. Oysters are returning to New York waters and are making their own contribution to filtering out the pollutants, but, as one scientist notes, "In our lifetime, there's no hope we could eat them, because the water contains heavy metals." It is the same sad story around the world.


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