(Outlook Traveller, October 23, 2006)

The Big Oyster
Mark Kurlansky
Jonathan Cape, distributed by Rupa & co,
POUNDS 7.75, 307 pages

If you have a sense of curiosity and a palate, you can’t have read Mark Kurlansky’s Cod and Salt, or his anthology of food writing, Choice Cuts, without joining his brigade of fans. Kurlansky is the best kind of foodie—passionate about food history, cooking ingredients, chefs and cooks, prodigiously well-informed in many areas and fascinated by the few where his knowledge runs out.

This book has an ominously long two-colon subtitle, though: The Big Oyster: New York in The World: A Molluscular History. Kurlansky’s trying to do either too much or too little here, by providing a glimpse of New York’s early history through the city’s fascination with oysters, which only died when polluted waters killed off the oyster beds.

Oyster neophytes complain that the mollusks have the taste and texture of cold snot. Gourmets share Kurlansky’s perspective: “It is hard to explain to those who don’t do it by what strange impulse humans take these primitive creatures with their tiny hearts pounding and slide them down their throats. It certainly has been something New Yorkers did with passion. The best explanation is that a fresh oyster from a clean sea fills the palate with the taste of all the excitement and beauty—the essence—of the ocean.”

In 1609, New York’s oysters were already famous to explorers like Henry Hudson, who traded tools for oysters with the Lenape Indians. A few decades later, the Dutch reported 12-inch oysters, and some of their still lives of the mollusks show a corresponding increase in size. An American cookbook published in 1796 took the cheapness of oysters for granted—one recipe calls for chicken to be stuffed with oysters and then smothered with a “pint of stewed oysters”—a prodigal dish in today’s terms, when a mere dozen oysters is an extravagance at most restaurant tables.

In a later age, Thackeray took issue with the incredible size of the average New York oyster—it was, he said, like eating a baby. Dickens, like the Scottish songwriter Charles Mackay, grew fascinated with the city’s oyster saloons, oyster bars and oyster cellars, which ranged from the very sophisticated to the desperately seedy. Many observers recorded that oyster-eating seemed to go particularly well with drink and prostitution. But by the 1900s, New York had grown beyond all reckoning, and it had the same relationship with its estuary that Delhi does with its river—these water bodies were either ignored, or treated as dumping grounds for sewage and worse, industrial sludge. The increasedpollution effectively killed off New York’s oysters, and the trade has never quite recovered.

Kurlansky hits every mark, with recipes from old cookbooks alternating with accounts of Dickens’ triumphal speaking tour across America, and descriptions of oyster cellars juxtaposed with an analysis of environmental damage. But unlike Salt, where every page was marked by Kurlansky’s passionate involvement with the subject, The Big Oyster is diligent and painstaking, but rarely more than that. For the New York historian, or the shellfish enthusiast, this will remain a useful curiosity. For the rest of us, it’s like the tinned oysters often served as fancy snacks at parties—however smoothly the book slides down your throat, this is flabby, insipid Kurlansky on the half-shell.