Consider The Oyster

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The oyster is an ancient species, and one that has evolved little over millions of years. It is found in the tidal waters of every continent but Antarctica, on the shores of every sea but the Caspian. It flourishes best in the bays and estuaries where salt- and fresh water mix and people build resorts. And despite the saying that it was a bold man who first ate one, the oyster has been consumed by humans since before the oldest certifiable man-made artifact.

But the oyster is no ordinary food. From time to time since the Romans, enlightened individuals have recognized extraordinary qualities in the family Ostreidae, and about the middle of the nineteenth century, Americans joined in what amounted to a mass democratic cult, virtually worshiping the creature. The privileged few usually define their delicacies in terms of how rare and, therefore, how expensive they are. But in gaslit America, high society’s every fine meal began with the same oysters that could be had on the street for pocket change by the rudest workingman.

The abundance of oysters is older than their glorification. The generation that founded Jamestown, for example, regarded oysters as rather poor fare. Their great poet, Shakespeare, described oysters as “foul” and linked them with the poorhouse. Their king, James I, is the earliest candidate for the authorship of the jaundiced assessment that “he was a valiant man who first adventured on eating of oysters.” A medical writer of the period formalized the inhibition against eating oysters in months without an “r” in their names. Boats that hauled oysters were thought fit in the off season for nothing but the hauling of wood or manure.

Even though oysters were cheap and plentiful in Europe, the abundance of the Chesapeake beds astonished the early Colonists. Seamen reported in amazement finding oyster-shell shoals large enough to capsize a boat. It appears from the earliest descriptions of these navigational hazards that only desperation could drive men to eat the creatures. But that is what happened. In the winter of 1609, the “Starving Times,” Jamestown survived only because sixty or eighty of the First Families of Virginia dragged themselves downriver where they subsisted on little but Crassostrea virginica , the native American oyster. Captain John Smith seems to shudder when he described their plight, but on the other hand, Smith could relish oysters too, when he was sufficiently hungry. On a voyage of exploration, he and his companions once came upon a place where “the Savages . . . had made a great fire, and had been newly a resting Oysters.” They ate some and sportingly pronounced them “very large and delicate in taste.”

In 1680 settlers in Maryland complained that they were so poorly provisioned that “in order to keep from starvation,” they were reduced to eating “the oysters taken from along the shores.” A generation later, William Byrd of Westover complained that an indolent inhabitant of the Great Dismal Swamp, “like the ravens . . . neither plowed nor sowed but subsisted chiefly upon oysters, which his handmaid made a shift to gather from the adjacent rocks.” The Pilgrims of Plymouth were more discriminating: they fed their clams and mussels to the hogs, but kept the oysters for themselves.

By the time of the Revolution, Americans had apparently acquired the taste. Oysters were still food for the poor: slaves rolled theirs in cornmeal and fried them, and in Southern coastal areas slave cabins sometimes seemed barricaded by great mounds of C. Virginica shells. But oysters were by then a fixture on elegant tables in the Big House as well. Landen Carter of Sabine Hall, who otherwise hardly mentions food in his diary (except to complain about how his slaves stole it from him), lovingly records every arrival of a wagonload of oysters. He fretted when a shipment was late and dashed off intemperate inquiries to his supplier. Once in July, 1776, when Carter got his hands on eight bushels, he pickled six and polished off two on the spot. According to his diary, he was far more preoccupied with defying the “r” taboo than with the defiant proceedings in Philadelphia. When a troubled neighbor reminded him of the “r” rule, Carter “shewed he not only could eat them but did it in every shape, raw, stewed, caked in fritters and pickled.”