The enduring values of our country can be found in the history of American cuisine. No story better demonstrates that fact then the life of Thomas Downing, New York’s legendary Oyster King.
Born in 1791 to freed blacks in Virginia, he grew up near the Methodist meeting-house his parents cared for. Yet his heart belonged not to the steeple but to the shore where from an early age he raked oysters and dug for clams.
As a young man he fought bravely against the British in the War of 1812 before settling in Philadelphia, where he met his wife. In 1819 he and his young bride moved to New York City to open an oyster business on Staten Island.
New York was an ideal location for his new business as at the time the large majority of men working as registered oystermen were freed blacks. Because racial discrimination seemed less to matter on the nearby waterways, of the 27 oystermen listed in the New York City Labor Directory, at least 16 were free black Americans.
The same was true of the City’s many oyster bars. They too were largely owned and operated by freed blacks, who were in 1821 granted the right to vote.
Downing worked hard, very hard. He first bought a boat and would row out in the dead of night to bargain with the return watermen in order to buy their best oysters before they could be auctioned off on the City’s waiting docks.
He combined his “sea bought” oysters with ones from the rich shellfish flats on the New Jersey side of the Hudson River to create a reputation for providing only “superior oysters”.
Soon his cart business expanded to a full oyster house and then a catering service. Both were unique.
His Oyster House, strategically located on the corner of Broad and Wall Street, close to the important centers of commerce, the banks, the Customs House, the Merchants’ Exchange and departmental stores, was actually a full restaurant, one any chef today could be proud of.
Its décor was lush and ornamental with soft carpets, damask curtains, gold-leaf carvings, chandeliers and mirrored hallways. His was the only oyster-house that attracted the powerful and elite of New York’s white society. Tables regularly filled by the City’s leading politicians, rich businessmen, intellectuals, and foreign dignitaries as well as women in the company of their husbands or chaperons.
Downing’s catering services were equally sought after. Indeed, when the famed English author Charles Dickens came to New World in 1842 Downing was chosen to cater the “Boz Ball” with a guest list boasting of 3,000 guests!
If one was ever to doubt the professionalism of the business he built, consider the list of the items he provided:
- 50,000 oysters
- 10,000 sandwiches
- 40 hams
- 76 tongues
- ort50 rounds of beef
- 50 jellied turkeys
- 50 pairs of chicken
- 25 of duck
- 2,000 mutton chops
Yet Downing’s lasting fame does not rest just on his skills as a business man. Instead of hoarding his wealth, he chose instead to share and to support the urgent social problems of his day from voting rights for all to equal educational access and to women’s rights.
While New York’s elite dined upstairs he welcomed fleeing slaves to his restaurant’s basement which was a secret stop on the Underground Railway. He offered employment to black musicians, laying the foundation for the great jazz clubs to come later in Harlem. As his catering business flourished he also worked to see that equal educational opportunities were available to all regardless of race.
His skill in business and his commitment to community were so outstanding that when he died in 1866 the New York City Chamber of Commerce closed so that they and the leading members of business, religious and social communities could attend his funeral!
Truly, Downing was more than just someone who sold shellfish. He was, instead, an outstanding example of what is best in the Hospitality Industry. He chose to take oysters and clams and change them into a way to change the world into a better place.