Culinary Oysters

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United States (18th, 19th Century)

The early colonies on the eastern seaboard of North America, later to become US-States, harvested stupendous quantities of oysters in the 18th and 19th century. Americans had learned nothing from the hard lessons of over-harvesting in Europe. The mistakes were simply repeated on an even grander scale.

By the beginning of the 19th century, New York City had joined the ranks of Paris and London as an international "oyster capital". Oystermen from the states of New Jersey, New York and Connecticut were selling millions of Eastern Oysters to London each year, essentially propping up London as an oyster capital at this point, as English oyster beds were rapidly nearing depletion. Londoners loved oysters. The average consumption level in the 1850s in London was estimated at about 500 million oysters per year. The oyster capital Paris was a little better off than London at this time. The French were (and still are) oyster fanatics. Although stringent French oystering regulations over the course of previous decades had managed to keep the supply at a guarded level, the oyster supply was starting to dwindle rapidly by the middle of the 19th century. Aggressive oyster cultivation as well as the inadvertent introduction of the Portuguese Oyster (Crassostrea angulata) ultimately spared the Parisian oyster lovers the fate of the English.

Oysters of the same species grown in different localities acquire a unique flavor and texture - likely the truest expression of "terroir", the term used so liberally in the world of wines. In the 19th century, oyster connoisseurs in all three oyster capitals developed definite preferences. Oysters were thus further qualified by names reflecting their origin. In London the native Helfords, Colchesters and Whitestables were the classic favorites. Most Parisians hungered for their native Cancales, Marennes and Arcachons. New Yorkers were also great oyster connoisseurs. They were spending more than 6 million dollars per year on oysters. They too had specific favorites. Names like Blue Points, Rockaways, Jamaica Bays, Prince's Bays, Mattitucks, Peconics, Yorks, Lynn Havens, Canarsees, Raritans, Norwalks, New Ports and Cape Cods had that extra special effect on the salivary glands. Many oyster lovers would swear by particular oyster names.

The most colorful oyster lover of the later part of the 19th century was a guy by the name of James Buchanan Brady a.k.a. "Diamond Jim". Diamond Jim was a New Yorker who had worked his way up in society. Originally from a poor Irish neighborhood, he proved to be an outstanding salesman and cunning entrepreneur. Diamond Jim became very rich. He dressed like a million bucks and wasn't bluffing like many of his contemporaries. Diamond Jim insited on really good food and plenty of it. Any restaurant that could boast Jim Brady as a regular patron was undoubtedly superior. With Jim, oysters were simply a given part of any proper dinner. He would usually start with six dozen oysters. A recipe, Sole Marguery à la Diamond Jim Brady, is featured in Charles Rector's cookbook "Naughty 90s". This delightful recipe consists in principle of a filet of sole (or flounder), garnished with a dozen oysters and some shrimp, then covered with a special sauce and lightly browned. Jim's favorite oysters: Lynn Havens.

New York City was a true paradise for oyster lovers. It featured a seemingly endless supply of superb oysters at ridiculously low prices. The first establishment serving oysters to the public was opened in 1763 on Broad Street. It operated out of a basement. By the 1830s, these so called "oyster cellars" had popped up all over the city. Most were concentrated along Canal Street. Lower Manhattan was a hot spot for these places. Most cellars were open for business all day until late at night, hence drawing quite a mixture of clientele. During the day, they were a great place to consume a big batch of delicious oysters for very little money: "All you can eat for 6 cents!" The menus featured raw, fried and stewed oysters. According to the delightfully written book "On the Town in New York" (Michael and Ariane Batterberry; 1973), raw oysters were "accompanied by a simple array of condiments: salt, pepper, oil, mustard, lemon juice, and vinegar. For fifteen cents, a customer expected a modest bowl of stew to be teeming with at least three dozen oysters, along with a generous slab of bread and butter, salad, and a relish or two".

Oyster connoisseurs could easily find these oyster cellars, as they all were marked outside by a special balloon. The balloon was merely a roundish wire frame with red (or sometimes red and white) fabric wrapped around it. At night the oyster cellars would light a candle inside the balloons. The nightly glow would often draw a rough kind of clientele. Besides oysters, lots of liquor was served at night and some of these establishments offered pleasures of a different kind, the kind which was certainly not featured on the menu. Anybody looking for a really sophisticated oyster dining experience was sent to the oyster house on the corner of Wall and Broad Street. The name of the establishment was Downing's. It was owned and operated by Thomas Downing and his family. The Downings were born as free blacks and ran a first class restaurant, serving not only the finest oysters but also other fabulously prepared dishes. The place was always crawling with the rich and famous. Very few people knew, however, that the Downings were not just shucking oysters or getting another bottle of fine wine in the basement. They were also hiding black slaves down there, ultimately shuttling them to freedom in Canada. Folks with very little money that also wished to indulge in oysters were readily accomodated by countless street peddlers and several markets. New York's famous Fulton Fish Market sold 50,000 oysters daily in 1877.

New York City, however, was hardly the only place famous for its oysters. Boston was also an "Oyster Mecca". The Union Oyster House in Boston, likely the most famous oyster restaurant in the world, started doing business as a restaurant in 1826, making it the oldest restaurant in the City of Boston and oldest restaurant in continuous service in the United States. In 1796, Louis Phillipe, later to become the king of France, camped out on the second floor of this fine oyster house. In the first half of the 19th century, Daniel Webster was a regular at this place. To this very day they serve outstanding oysters. Dating back to 1837, the Massachusetts based Cotuit Oyster Company is one of the (if not the) oldest and most respected brand name of oysters in the United States. In Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, a place called "The Oyster House" opened in 1870. You could buy fresh oysters for a penny a piece and, for ten cents more, match them up perfectly with a tasty beer. The Oyster House still exists and is considered Pittsburgh's oldest bar and restaurant.

New Orleans was also already famous for its fine oysters by the early 19th century. The restaurant Antoine's opened its doors for business there in 1840. It is still famous today for its oyster dishes and excellent French-Creole cuisine. In fact, the most famous oyster recipe in the world, "Huîtres en coquille à la Rockefeller", better known simply as "Oysters Rockefeller", was invented there. In Biloxi, Mississippi, the streets were paved with oyster shells. There were (and likely still are) no finer oyster bake festivals than the ones celebrated in Biloxi.

In the 19th century, oysters also became extremely popular in the Midwest. Chicago in particular had (and still has) countless oyster lovers. In 1871, the famous Chicago saloon owner and politician Joseph Chesterfield Mackin, a.k.a. "Chesterfield Joe" and "Oyster Joe", started serving cooked oysters free with every beer ordered.

By the 1850s, the oystermen out on the waterfront already knew that the booming oyster capital New York City was heading for big trouble. Over-harvesting was nothing new around New York. As early as 1658, the Dutch Council of the settlement New Amsterdam (later to become New York City) had passed an ordinance regulating the taking of oysters from the East River. More regulations followed in New York (1715), New Jersey (1719, 1730, 1769), Rhode Island (1734), Connecticut (1762, 1784). They merely slowed the inevitable depletion of oysters. New York was growing by leaps and bounds. Raw sewage and industrial waste flowed unchecked into the coastal waters. By the end of the 19th century, some oyster lovers dared to suspect that "that special taste of New York oysters" was by now in part attributable to the filth the oysters were constantly filtering out of the water.

The bays around New York City once produced unimaginably large quantities of the finest tasting oysters in the world. The East River, both a tidal strait and an estuary , separating Long Island and the boroughs of Queens and Brooklyn from the island of Manhattan and the Bronx, was once loaded with natural oyster beds. It has been estimated that about 350 square miles of oyster reefs once existed from the Hudson River to the Shrewsbury and Navesink rivers. In the 1770s it was a common sight to see close to two hundred canoes heavily laden with oysters returning to port daily. By the end of the 18th century, the coastal area around New York City and New Jersey was already largely exploited. Long Island Sound and the Chesapeake Bay became the new oyster frontiers.

By the 19th century, oystermen in the states of New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, Delaware, Rhode Island and Maine were already working much longer and harder hours to fill their quotas of oysters. Some oystermen opted to move their boats, crews and equipment down to the Chesapeake Bay, where the oyster boom was still in full swing. Oystermen in Maryland were still harvesting anywhere from 7 - 10 million bushels per year. Maryland harvests peaked in the season of 1884/85 with 15 million bushels. The Virginia side of the bay was going strong as well. The Chesapeake Bay oyster boom continued clear into the dawn of the 20th century.

Many oystermen in the Northeast preferred to make a stand in their home waters, despite the increasingly paltry natural oyster harvests at that point. Some of these oystermen started supplementing the dwindling catch of oysters with the harvesting of the native hard shell clams (so called "Quahogs"), lobsters, crabs, and other seafood. Others chose to get more creative.

By the 1830s, some enterprising New York and New Jersey oystermen already sensed that they could not continue to satisfy the voracious oyster appetite of the New Yorkers with the rapidly dwindling local harvests for much longer. Bringing in "seed oysters" started to become trendy among oystermen in New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, Maine and several other northeastern states. Seed oysters today usually designate very young oysters (small and far under one year of age), which are purchased and then transplanted from one area to another where they then continue to grow to marketable size. In those days, oystermen would often also transplant large oysters. Since transplanted oysters from the warmer Chesapeake Bay, for instance, continued to grow out very well in cooler northerly waters, it turned out to be most profitable for oystermen in the Northeast to bring large quantities of quite large "seed oysters". Many of the bays and estuaries of New York, New Jersey and Connecticut featured an enormously rich supply of high quality plankton. This would lead to rapid continued growth and very tasty oysters. An oystering firm could, for instance, bring in a load of 10.000 bushels of 2 year old "Chesapeakes", plant them in their nutritionally rich waters in April and, by October of the same year, possibly harvest as much as 14.000 bushels and then go on to sell them as "true Raritans" for instance. This was not a con job by any means. Within six months, any oyster transplanted from anywhere will taste as if it had lived in its new home all its life! It is the same method the French have been practicing with their famed "Belons".

Some of these oystermen made fortunes in those days. By 1850, "250 schooners imported two million bushels of oysters to Fair Haven (Connecticut)." (Ref.: Kochiss; Oystering, 15). This form of oyster cultivation was referred to as "bedding". There was one little catch, however. European buyers could get real upset, if a New York oysterman simply passed off oysters straight from the Chesapeake Bay without any bedding in New York waters as "New York oysters".

The practice of bedding oysters was a critically important development. There was a big difference between exploiting natural local reefs and planting oysters acquired somewhere else in a local coastal area for purposes of growing them out. Needless to say, an oysterman discovering all his bedded oysters had suddenly been dredged up by someone else for free, could easily lead to a first class New York fisticuffs between oystermen. Back in the 18th century, New York and New Jersey had already passed ordinances designed to keep oystermen from outside their respective states out of their oyster beds. Most oystermen, however, still insisted that the coastal waters of their state, as sanctioned by Common Law, were a form of "No Man's Land" or "terra nullius", whereby it belonged to everyone and no one. This became an even bigger problem, when another form of oyster cultivation called "shelling" became common (more about "shelling" later). By the beginning of the second half of the 19th century there were already vast stretches of coastal ocean floor around New York City and New Jersey which had been swept clean of natural oyster reefs. In terms of oysters they amounted to marine wasteland at this point. It was simply logical that an oysterman would not spend lots of time and money cultivating oysters on a section of this wasteland, if anybody could later help themselves to his oysters for free. In the late 1850s and 60s, a number of coastal states and municipalities in the Northeast started to issue proprietary rights and leases to some coastal marine parcels. Oyster cultivation subsequently blossomed. Aside from the actual cultivation work, the only additional chores facing cultivating oystermen now, was to make sure the area was properly surveyed, their respective areas were still visibly marked (often by large poles, tree trunks, boueys) after a storm and keeping thieves out of their cultivated beds.

Connecticut is an excellent historical example along these lines .
Historically, in terms of devising progressive programs to help improve the oyster business, the State of Connecticut is most noteworthy. Its oyster history reflects that of several other northeastern coastal states. The council of the City of New Haven, Connecticut, passed aggressive oyster ordinances in 1762. Anybody caught oystering in that area between May 1 and September 1, was subject to a stiff fine. The remaining other months constituted the formal oystering season, the so called "R-Months", a rule, which was later adopted by many US coastal municipalities and states in one form or another. By 1784, the Connecticut Legislature passed a statewide law, empowering all coastal townships to implement regulations limiting the harvest of oysters. Twentyfour townships subsequently adopted the "R-Month" rule. Additionally, the harvest during the R-Months was limited to two bushels of oysters per person per day. Although limiting the harvest to 2 bushels and restricting harvesting to the "R-Months" would seem like a valuable reprieve for the oyster beds, it regrettably had little practical value in terms of replenishing the oyster beds. Poaching became rampant, so rampant in fact, that, by 1800, a number of manned guard posts had been erected. Guarding changed very little and the poaching went on. The harvesting method of dredging soon proved far too efficient and the destruction of countless oyster beds was often complete and irreversible.

In 1845, the Connecticut legislature passed another ruling, offering at no cost to any Connecticut citizen the opportunity of cultivating a parcel of oyster ground, solely with seed oysters brought in from outside of the state. The parcels were, however, not considered private. Then, in 1855, Connecticut boldly started offering any state citizens private ownership of a free underwater parcel of oyster ground, up to two acres, as long as the individual was willing to survey the ground and cultivate it by importing oysters from other areas and growing them accordingly. The offer was well received by many citizens. It was, however, not at all well received by many dredgers, who continued to insist that the coastal waters of the state, under Common Law, belonged to everyone. Other dredgers seized the opportunity and had their friends and relatives also claim oyster grounds under the new "Two Acre Law", which in turn were then simply quitclaimed back to them. What started out as a seemingly great opportunity for small oyster growers, soon degenerated to many small business failures. Raiders would steal all the oysters in many of the unprotected parcels. A few passes (called "licks") with their dredges would financially ruin the owner. Many lots were soon up for sale. They were subsequently bought up by some of the larger oystering firms. A number of these firms were already in possession of many tracts of private oystering grounds and went on to evolve into prosperous, renowned and powerful companies.

Things evolved quite differently in the Chesapeake Bay. Although Maryland and Virginia each had their respective territorial state claims to the bay, neither state granted oystermen proprietary claims. Virginia oystermen were supposed to harvest in the Virginia part and Maryland oystermen in the Maryland part. Where the oystermen chose to dredge or tong in their respective state waters was pretty much their own decision. As far as oysters were concerned, the Chesapeake Bay was strictly a hunting ground, not a place for any kind of cultivation. It remained that way clear into the middle of the 20th century. Lots of so called "oyster pirates" existed, as dredges also operate perfectly well in the dead of night. Some Maryland oystermen raided the oyster beds on the Virginia side. Some Virginia oystermen would do the same in Maryland waters. Many of the pirates dredging in the Chesapeake Bay were not even Virginians or Marylanders. They hailed from places like North Carolina, New Jersey or New York. Rumors abounded that some pirates were hiring crews at the beginning of the season and, if the dredging harvest proved to be poor, would simply throw them overboard into the cold waters of the bay. The murderous practice was called "paid by the boom". In the 1880s, bullets started flying on the Virgina side of the Chesapeake Bay, some dredgers were arrested and their boats sold at public auction. Dredgers and tongers (ref. equipment) also developed an increasingly deep dislike for each other.

Around 1850 a most significant cultivation method was invented in the coastal waters off Norwalk, Connecticut. The practice involves the spreading of prepared shell stock on oyster beds for the purpose of encouraging oyster larvae to settle on it. This cultivation method is called "shelling" and is still practiced today. The invention of this efficient and cost effective method of cultivation even predates, by several years, the French cultivation methods introduced by the famed naturalist Coste. It was a big discovery for the commercial oyster world. But who was the actual pioneer of this cultivation method? Certainly he or she would be catapulted into the same noble league of prominent persons like the famous Frenchman Coste. Researching various books, I was surprised to find that a number of persons seem to wear the laurels for pioneering shelling. In 1892, the renowned naturalist W. K. Brooks mentions his book "The Oyster" the names "Mr. Fordham, Capt. Henry Bell, Mr. Oliver Cook, Mr. Weed and Mr. Hawley". An informative booklet titled "New Haven's Oyster Industry" (V.M. Galpin; The New Haven Colony Historical Society) dated 1989, grants the laurels to Mr. Nathan Roberts and Mr. Oliver Weed. A special acknowledgement also went to a Capt. Townshend, who, in 1867, supposedly actually proved to New Haven oystermen that seed oysters grown on prepared shell stock could ultimately be marketed profitably.
A little further research, however, revealed an extensive and exceptionally well-written report titled "American Oyster Culture" in Scribner's Monthly from the year 1878. The author, Mr. James Richardson, gives an oysterman from Norwalk, Connecticut, a man by the name of Charles Hoyt, all the laurels exclusively. Richardson describes the circumstances of the humble oysterman Hoyt, working just a few acres of oyster ground and importing oysters for seeding, much like the afore mentioned Connecticut oystering promotion for private citizens had set forth as a condition. "Hoyt studied oysters individually and collectively with the directness and perseverance of a born naturalist". He goes on to describe the trials and tribulations of Hoyt in detail, which ultimately led to his discovery of successful culturing with prepared shell stock. Just for the record, so Mr. Hoyt doesn't get lost again in the annals of history: Charles Hoyt might possibly be the only man, who actually deserves the laurels for pioneering the cultivation method called shelling.

In 1891, a man by the name of William K. Brooks wrote an important book with the simple title "The Oyster". Embossed on the front cover of this otherwise plain green hard back is the silhouette of a golden Eastern Oyster, suggesting it's great value. Brooks served as the Oyster Commissioner of Maryland between 1883 and 1884. As a trained naturalist and respected faculty member of a local University, he undoubtedly performed a dangerous high wire act between commercial interests and prudent conservation efforts for many decades. The proverbial 'writing on the wall' was very clear to him. He warned that without some kind of balance between harvesting and cultivation, the oysters of the Chesapeake Bay would soon be wiped out. Right off the bat, on page three, he wrote in no uncertain terms:

"Unfortunately this is now so clear that it can no longer be hidden from sight nor explained away, and everyone knows that, proud as our citizens once were in our birthright in our oyster-beds, we will be unable to give to our children any remnant of our patrimony unless the whole oyster industry is reformed without delay. We have wasted our inheritance by improvidence and mismanagement and blind confidence…"

He dispensed with cryptic scientific jargon and proceeded to deliberately write the book in the kind of plain English that anyone could understand. Step by step he guides the reader through the wonderful workings of the marine environment and the amazing anatomy of the oyster.

Brooks went on to build a very strong case for oyster cultivation in the Chesapeake Bay, describing in detail how oyster farming had already been successfully implemented in France. He also noted that a cultivation method called "shelling", had been practiced successfully in Long Island Sound for many years. To spark the imagination, or, if anything, to at least to keep the readers attention, he liberally sprinkled his text with amazing facts, statistics and mathematical models of what is conceivable in the context of oyster cultivation. For example, he carefully calculated that if a single female oyster were only to produce 16 million eggs and only 8 million fertilized eggs were in turn to become females in the first generation, that by the fifth generation of descendants, if each oyster were to fill eight cubic inches of space, the aggregate volume of oysters produced would equal eight times the volume of the earth. He reminded the reader at the same time that merely one egg laying of the oysters was considered in his calculations, as female oysters of course continue to lay eggs each year for many years and that "…the possible rate of increase is very much greater than shown by the figures". He also pointed out, that in the 56 years of oyster packing houses, an almost inconceivable 400,000,000 bushels of oysters had been harvested in the bay and continued over-harvesting would soon bring disastrous consequences.

On page 164, after having delivered a compelling road map for the successful cultivation of oysters in the Chesapeake Bay, he finally vented his utter frustration with the numb complacency of the legislatures of Maryland in plain view of impending disaster and the oyster industry's finger pointing blame game. He dispensed with all the diplomatic niceties and bluntly wrote: "I state, then, in capital letters, that our beds are in danger," and proceeded to literally shout "BECAUSE THE DEMAND HAS OUTGROWN THE NATURAL SUPPLY." By page 167, his text reached out to the common people of Maryland: "The current of public opinion must be turned in the right direction by disaster, caused by allowing ruinous systems to remain in force; but it is hoped that a point will soon be reached where people will become alive to the situation and apply the remedy."

The hopes of W.K. Brooks were dashed. Very few listened and nothing changed. Most of the oyster industry of his beloved Chesapeake Bay went belly up in the first half of the 20th century. It is estimated that merely 1% of the once mighty oyster population of the Chesapeake Bay still exists today.

Early in the second half of the 19th century, the West Coast oyster industry was born. It all started with with a big bunch of fortune seekers that suddenly headed to California. They're remembered as the 49ers. When they got there, they not only found the treasure they had come for, lots of gold, but yet another. It was a remarkable new oyster, petite yet so tasty that upon consuption it surely let any gold hunter forget all his toils in the rugged gold fields for a moment and smile: The Olympia Oyster. This final oyster chapter of the 19th century is so remarkable that it requires a small page of its own:

The Birth of West Coast Oystering and the The Emerald Princess


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