Forgive us if we go a little oyster crazy ahead of the Tuesday, June 17 event at Pier 40 to celebrate this species with The River Project and NY-NJ Baykeeper.
Below is a fun and informative interview with acclaimed author Mark Kurlansky about his New York Harbor-centered book, The Big Oyster: History on the Half Shell. New York City’s history is revealed to be one of early dependence upon, and later despoilment of, this pivotal estuary species. Kurlansky takes New York City to task for fouling its own nest, but also mines enormous humor, wisdom, and human stories from the middens of history. You might be surprised by his insights into Native American use of oysters, and the important role the bivalve played in the history of women and African Americans.
Erik Baard: You start off with the despoilment of New York Harbor, and it’s a pretty brave thing to do, to start off a book on a down note. But clearly New York is a lot more than a blight upon nature. A lot of wonderful things have come out of New York. How much of that trade off has been fair?
Mark Kurlansky: I think that we could have achieved everything that we did achieve without the spoiling. I think that it is one of the great tragic fallacies of development, that to build the city you have to destroy nature. You know if you build a city on a site that’s a natural wonder, like New York is, you could build it with nature in mind and have this wonderful place that was every bit as powerful and important.
Because after all, you know, it was nature that gave New York its importance, the extremely extensive and protected harbor. And there’s no reason that it had to be developed in the way it was. Just like when Peter Stuyvesant built the wall, that did not necessarily mean that everybody had to throw their trash over it.
Erik Baard: Right. The wall you’re talking about is by what later became known as the “Collect,” a beautiful pond north of the early Dutch Manhattan settlement.
Mark Kurlansky: Right, right.
Erik Baard: And they built it to keep the English out, who naturally arrived by sea.
Mark Kurlansky: Yeah, yeah I don’t know why they would arrive by land. I mean why would the world’s greatest naval power attack a sea going port from the land, and in fact they didn’t.
Erik Baard: And looking at that kind of short-sightedness and environmental issues, how responsive to crises are we today? For example New York Harbor is cleaning up, but it had to nearly die first. We lost one of the world’s greatest oyster beds. Green house gases are a greater current war. What have we learned?
Mark Kurlansky: Yeah, I think that’s right. I mean, if you look at the history of the pollution and clean up of New York Harbor, when are we going to address global warming, after Cape Cod is underwater? You know, what’s it going to take? We tend to allow things to get to an incredible level of calamity before we deal with them.
Erik Baard: You mentioned in the book how New Yorkers don’t plan, but rather create situations then deal with them.
Mark Kurlansky: Right.
Erik Baard: Is that maybe more than just a New Yorker quirk? Maybe that’s just a human quality?
Mark Kurlansky: Yeah, I don’t think it’s unique to New York at all. In fact I think it’s true of all American cities. And maybe a characteristic of human nature, though it’s often been commented that that was how American born policy’s been made.
Erik Baard: I mean it’s hard to look at China today, for an example of a very different culture, and see greater wisdom at work.
Mark Kurlansky: No, they’re doing the exact same thing. Unfortunately, as countries develop they do not look at our model and say, “Let’s do it better.” They say very arrogantly, “We have the right to do what you did.” It’s one of the big problems in world environmental issues, that developing countries say, you know, “you polluted to develop, now it’s our turn.”
Erik Baard: But even the Native Americans, as you point out in the book, were straining the oyster supplies, that even though the population was much lower than ours today, they were already straining the oyster supplies.
Mark Kurlansky: That’s right, contrary to, you know the classic picture we have of the Native American living within his resources, you could look through those ancient piles of shells and see that the deeper you go the bigger the shells are. They were over-harvesting oysters.
Erik Baard: And also just tossing these shells into these middens. It took modern science in the 19th century to catch on that putting the shells back in the water restored lime to the water and provided anchorage for more oyster beds to grow.
Mark Kurlansky: Yeah, not only that, but since oysters grow by creating shell material out of the lime in the water, the higher the lime content of the water, the better the oyster grow.
Erik Baard: Right.
Mark Kurlansky: So dumping shells into oyster beds is a very beneficial thing.
Erik Baard: The Dutch and British settlers used that shell lime to construct stone homes. And I’m kind of curious about the many ways oysters were used. It’s a very versatile product, the meat, the shell being used for construction of buildings… How else were they used?
Mark Kurlansky: They were used in roads, you know, paving roads and in landfill. They were use to fertilize soil, to increase the lime content of the soil, which used to be called “sweetening the soil.” You could just plow oysters under. In fact, Europeans who visited were surprised to see that. The European way was always to grind it up and create this lime powder that you use as fertilizer, but New York farmers used to just take whole shells and put them in the earth.
Erik Baard: And this would lower the acidity?
Mark Kurlansky: Right. Okay.
Erik Baard: Now also, Pearl Street, you clarified some mythologies on that.
Mark Kurlansky: Yes, for some reason there’s a lot of mythologies about Pearl Street. I was just on Pearl Street last Saturday, I was thinking about this. Pearl Street was the waterfront in Dutch times, in the original Manhattan. It continues now several blocks further because of landfill. And there’s lots of stories about why it was called Pearl Street. But the real reason seems to be that on the waters edge there, the Indians had left large piles of shells.
Erik Baard: It wasn’t paved with the oyster shells?
Mark Kurlansky: No you often hear that but, one of the first things I noticed when I was researching this book was that the street got its name before it was paved.
Erik Baard: And there are no pearls associated with the oysters in New York Harbor?
Mark Kurlansky: Or anywhere else in the Eastern United States. The pearl oyster is not an oyster, it’s not the same family or genus. It’s an animal that’s closer to a mussel, and lives in the tropics. When it takes in material that it find indigestible, it coats it and this coating eventually turns into a pearl. When the true oyster runs into material like that, it just spits it out.
Erik Baard: Now that’s the other thing that’s kind of funny about oysters, that they were once a delicacy and at the same time a nearly worthless commodity. You even mentioned how Chaucer had invoked the image of the oyster as essentially not worth one’s salt. A very low-grade commodity.
Mark Kurlansky: Right. And Dickens said that poverty is always associated with oysters. And in fact, in most of New York City’s history poor people ate oysters. In fact some poor people ate nothing but oysters and bread. You know and they had something called the “Canal Street Plan” in the 19th century that was all you could eat for six cents. The price of oysters barely moved in New York City between the American Revolution and when the last bed was closed in 1927.
Erik Baard: They were apparently eccentric enough that sometimes they would trick people to dissuade them from over indulging on that deal, as I recall.
Mark Kurlansky: Yes, yeah, if, if you ate more than your six cents worth, you know, you just kept eating them and eating them they would find a special oyster for you and you wouldn’t eat any more for a few days.
Erik Baard: So they were deliberating giving you contaminated oysters at that point?
Mark Kurlansky: Yeah, that was the safety catch in the all-you-can-eat program.
Erik Baard: So now looking at this, you mentioned how this associated with poverty. But even before European settlement, women were the gatherers of oysters. You had mentioned that it was woman’s work. And also that African Americans later on were very deeply involved with the trade, from gathering to operating oyster cellars.
Mark Kurlansky: Yeah and street stands also.
Erik Baard: Street stands.
Mark Kurlansky: It’s very interesting history. In the early 19th Century native beds in New York City started to become exhausted, and they started replanting them with seeds from the Chesapeake Bay. Three black men from Maryland would come up to do this. And this was before the Civil War and Maryland was a slave state. And free blacks in Maryland had a lot of repressive laws, they weren’t allowed to own property, so they weren’t allowed to own their own oyster bed. They weren’t allowed to captain a ship.
They came to New York and they found that they had all these rights. So they stayed and they built oystering communities, one famous one on Staten Island. But they also ran oyster cellars and street stands.
Thomas Downing was one of these men from Maryland who ran a famous oyster cellars on Broad Street that all the leading politicians and businessmen went to. And everybody who was anybody in New York knew him, and he shipped oysters to Queen Victoria. It was kind of like the way New Yorkers away from New York will try to get lox from Zabars. It used to be Downing’s Oysters, Americans ex-pats would have American theme parties in Paris and they’d serve real Downing Oysters.
Erik Baard: He also kind of created the Starbucks of his time. He took what was a devalued commodity and he, by creating a refined atmosphere, had raised the value of it tremendously. Even more so, he took something that was associated with prostitution and all these other things, you know, that were marginalized and stigmatized, and even though he himself came from freed black slaves, he managed to create this center of power.
Mark Kurlansky: That’s right. Cellars were sort of just disreputable places in the slums that were frequented by prostitutes, and they were marked by a red light, yes. But Downing’s was a very respectable place. He was a very interesting man involved with the Abolitionist movement and sent his kids to abolitionist schools and was thought to be involved with the Underground Railroad. He was among the first prominent Afro-American New Yorkers.
Erik Baard: And now who are the big oyster eaters and producers today?
Mark Kurlansky: Well, not, as far as producers go, not New York City because the water has never become clean enough to go back to producing oysters.
Erik Baard: Still, they can grow here again. Even if they’re not edible, that’s a step in the right direction.
Mark Kurlansky: That’s right. Because for a time they couldn’t even survive in the water. Thanks to the Clean Water Act in the 1970s, the water is now cleaned up enough so that oysters can live. The environmentalists are replanting beds because oysters are very good for water. They suck in the water and take out algae and impurities and pump out clear water. So that when Henry Hudson first arrived in New York Harbor, the water must have been incredibly clear because of all those oysters.
But what they will do for you is to eat up PCBs and heavy metals. And of course you’ll eat them if you eat the oysters, so there’s still no oyster production in New York City, although they’re growing oysters. But New Yorkers are eating oysters, I think more than they ever have since the beds were closed in 1927. Oysters are once again becoming tremendously trendy. It seems every time I turn around there’s a new oyster restaurant.
Erik Baard: Well, where are they coming in from?
Mark Kurlansky: Well, it’s become a fashionable thing. I mean this is something that’s happened to food in general, which is a product of our global age. You know, when people eat something they want to sample it from all over the world. You know this has happened with salt. You know, it’s very trendy to get five kinds of salts from different places in the world and you know, oyster places nowadays try to offer you 20 different kinds of oysters from the East Coast and the West Coast and New Zealand and Chile. The more places, the better.
Erik Baard: You remark about how the North American East Coast oyster is pretty much a monoculture.
Mark Kurlansky: Right, from Louisiana to all of the Gulf and Florida and Chesapeake Bay all the way up to Newfoundland, they’re biologically identical oysters. But you know, if you plant them in one side of the cove and also the other side of the cove, you’ll get two oysters that not only taste completely different but look different and have different shells. The oysters are all like wine grapes: it’s all about where you grow them.
The temperature of the water, the salinity, and the types of nutrients, and the speed of the current, all these things change oysters. But New York City was an oyster center. There were more than half a dozen different types of New York City oysters: different bays and Staten Islanders, Rockaways and East River, and Saddle Rocks, and they were all quite different.
Erik Baard: You said that the region accounted for half of the world’s production at one point.
Mark Kurlansky: Yes, yes. Hundreds of millions of oysters a year. It was known as the oyster center. If you were to say, “I’m going to New York,” chances are someone would say, “Enjoy the oysters.” You know, it’s what New York was known for.
Erik Baard: Of course, the Europeans and other cultures ate oysters before the New World was even a dream for Henry Hudson. So looking at that, then what species survive today and how are they being transplanted around the world? I remember you mentioned French oysters had been planted in Maine? Is that correct?
Mark Kurlansky: Yes, yes.
Erik Baard: And in Washington state, also.
Mark Kurlansky: There’s a lot of types of oysters, but the two leading genera are the Crassostrea and the Ostrea. The Ostrea is the more common in Europe, and in North America it’s mostly Crassostrea, which is considerably different. They reproduce differently and they grow in a somewhat different environment, grow at a different rate. Crassostrea is much more durable and can grow in a wider range of environments. They’re kind of taking over.
Erik Baard: And now are some species better than other species for aphrodisiacs?
Mark Kurlansky: I’m not sure. You know I think…
Erik Baard: I think the zinc levels are a critical part of that in terms of being a building block for testosterone.
Mark Kurlansky: I suppose. You know, the closest thing to any science on it is that there’s a lot of zinc in oysters and as you say, that’s a building block for testosterone. But you know, I think the key thing for aphrodisiacs is believing in them. And people have always believed that oysters were aphrodisiacs. It was the food of Roman orgies.
Erik Baard: And I guess it would be very fashionable for today’s club kids as well. But now, looking at oysters the same way you would look at salt and cod, what did you learn uniquely from oysters as a window into world economic history?
Mark Kurlansky: Well, one of the things that I thought tremendously interesting about oysters in New York is that their market crossed all socioeconomic levels. That’s a very rare thing for food. Generally, if you keep the price down they become a food for poor people and then rich people don’t want them. But that didn’t happen with oysters. They were as popular with the rich as with the poor eaten the exact same ways. So, it’s an example that defies everything we know about the price mechanism in marketing a commodity.
I was also surprised that we would tend to think of oysters as fragile, which of course wouldn’t be as much of an issue today with airplanes, but with transportation in the 18th century and 19th century, you wouldn’t think you’d be able to ship oysters very far. You know they ship them from New York to Europe to San Francisco and you know it turns out they’re quite durable if you pack them right.
Erik Baard: Yes, you had mentioned that you had to pack them with the (curved) side down.
Mark Kurlansky: Yes, yes, to hold the liquid in.
Erik Baard: One oddity. The American government tried to encourage people to
anesthetize their oysters?
Mark Kurlansky: Yes, because oysters are eaten live and so there’s this idea that it would be more humane to put them to sleep before you eat them. But the problem the people in the oyster business had with all this is that it was going to point out to everybody that you were eating live creatures, which most people don’t realize. So they decided it was better to just not bring up the subject.
Erik Baard: Well, on that note, now that we’ve ruined a lot of meals, thank you so much for your time and we look forward to your next book.
Mark Kurlansky: Thanks, great talking to you.