If there’s one city that has an undying affection for the marvelous mollusk, it’s New York City.
From the recently held Billion Oyster Party where New Yorkers dined on oysters supplied from 30 oysters farms from coast to coast to Lenape Native Americans whose discarded shells formed snow white hills along the shore, New York has long adored oysters.
Mark Kurlansky’s outstanding book, THE BIG OYSTER, History on the Half Shell, tracks Manhattan’s journey along the ‘oyster trail’ through the centuries.
As always, the story begins with terroir. New York sits at the confluence of several great rivers. The resulting estuary was a textbook place for Crassostrea virginica, which thrive in the intertidal areas, rinsed by nutrient-rich waters.
The native Lenape ate oysters, the Dutch settlers dined oysters, the colonial English savored oysters as well. But by the late 18th century, everyone knew this dietary staple wouldn't last forever, that "Eden had its limits."
At first the city restricted who could harvest oysters, and then the city moved to limit the use of dredges and steam power as well. Meanwhile, the population of New York steadily increased. The constant dumping of garbage and sewage began to take a different sort of toll on the health of the harbor floor.
To counteract the environmental damage, oystermen began transplanting and cultivating oyster seed in cleaner places such as the Great South Bay. The advent of cultivation had tremendous commercial implications. Workers shucked and pickled as fast as they could, shipping barrels of oysters far and wide. The sudden increase in availability resulted in the city being overwhelmed by ‘oystermania’.
By 1880, New York's oyster beds were producing 700 million a year. New Yorkers rich and poor were slurping the creatures in oyster cellars, saloons, stands, houses, cafes and restaurants. They were eaten pickled, stewed, baked, roasted, fried and scalloped; in soups, patties and puddings; for breakfast, lunch and dinner.
Sadly, as New York City developed industrially, it did not protect the purity of its nearby oyster producing waters. Pesticides, heavy metals, solvents, oil and eventually asbestos and PCB's were carelessly poured into rivers destroying the rich oyster beds.
In 1927, the city's last oyster beds closed but pollution of the nearby rivers continued until the enactment of the federal Clean Water Act in 1972. Today New Yorkers are working to restore their once oyster rich tidal areas through the activities of organizations such as Billion Oyster Project.
Books such as THE BIG OYSTER, History on the Half Shell and organizations like the Billion Oyster Project all play a vital role in raising awareness that no environmental resource is inherently eternal. Rather care and insightful stewardship are required to protect such culinary treasures as oysters on the half shell.
Taylor Shell Farms are proud to be part of these new efforts to protect water purity and insure oyster availability long into the future for both chefs and diners.