Consider The Oyster

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Long within reach of the poor, C. virginica was now also coveted by the rich. And its accessibility was not limited to coasts, for the oyster could be “educated.” That is, it could be taught to clamp its shell tightly shut by a procedure involving several cycles of immersing it suddenly in weak brine and just as abruptly draining it off. This simulated the tides with which oysters had coped for millenniums, except that these man-made ebbings and floodings were erratic indeed: several short cycles and then a long, dry, low tide for purposes of transit with which, obligingly, the oysters came to terms. In this way Blue Points could be hauled not only to the Eastern metropolitan markets; they and a shimmering variety of Cotuits, Wellfleets, Cape Cods, Narragansetts, Gardiners Bays, Peconic Bays, Oyster Bays, Fire Islands, Girdletrees, Kent Islands, Lynnhavens, Bobbins Islands, and Chincoteagues might be and were shipped far into the interior. Even before the railroad, great lumbering express wagons hauled live oysters hundreds of miles inland. An ambitious former congressman named Abraham Lincoln seems to have been admired locally for his oyster orgies, and the Lincolns several times threw parties at which huge quantities of the mollusks were eaten raw and subjected to every method of cookery then practiced in Springfield, Illinois.

One oyster recipe that would not have made its way to Illinois was “Hangtown Fry,” a California Gold Rush specialty. The memory of the Eastern oyster apparently haunted the forty-niners. Indeed, their monotonous hardtack and soda-bread diet made them willing to pay as high as a dollar apiece for the bivalves. (An oyster sold for a cent on an Eastern wharf at the time.) The demand was such that, in 1851, a schooner plied its way up the Northern coast, through Oregon and into Washington, shucking and sampling as it went, in search of supply. The best were found in what soon became Oysterville, Washington, a place which, in Gilded Age atlases, was labeled in larger type than Seattle or Tacoma. Although the tiny native Olympia oyster is noted for its flavor, it never made the big commercial splash of its distant Eastern cousin. But the Olympia was the oyster that figured in the invention of the gold miners’ special.

The story goes that a miner from Shirt-tail Bend whooped into the big city (Hangtown), loaded with nuggets and dust. At the Gary House, he demanded the most expensive meal in the house. The most expensive ingredients, he was told, were oysters and eggs. Fair enough. One version has the cook inventing the dish, and another has him following the miner’s orders, but in any case, he poured beaten eggs over frying oysters, and Hangtown Fry was born.

On the whole, the European tourists of the era were condescending toward American oysters. Captain Marryat, in 1837, responding to the American complaint that English Colchesters and French belons tasted of copper, replied that the Americans were correct; European oysters did taste of copper, “and that’s the reason we do not like American oysters, copper being better than no flavor at all.”

Even the sniffy Captain was awed by the abundance of oysters in the United States, however. It was a country where the recipes began, “Take 200 nice oysters.…” Mrs. J. Chadwick’s successful Home Cookery of 1853 spoke of “enhancing” a “Gumbo Soup” with one hundred oysters as if she were writing “add salt to taste.”

Another famous traveler was impressed by the size of the American varieties. Upon being presented with half a dozen six- to eight-inch beauties, William Makepeace Thackeray “first selected the smallest one … and then bowed his head as though he were saying grace. Opening his mouth very wide, he struggled for a moment, after which all was over. I shall never forget the comic look of despair he cast upon the other five over-occupied shells,” wrote a companion. “I asked him how he felt. ‘Profoundly grateful’ he said, ‘as if I had swallowed a small baby.’ ”

The size and quantity of American oysters seemed as appropriate a symbol of New World greatness as the steamboat, thousand-mile-long railroads, and ten different churches in a two-year-old town. A cartoonist of the Gilded Age depicted shriveled “Count Ostend” shrinking sourly in the presence of a “Mr. American Oyster” who was as fat as Diamond Jim Brady and beamed like a successful traveling salesman.

Diamond Jim was not the all-time champion oyster glutton. That distinction seems to belong to the Emperor Vitellius who, it was said, ate a thousand at a sitting. The modern record is held by Vernon Bass, competing in a contest at Waif’s Fish Market in Sarasota, Florida, in November, 1975. Bass downed 588 oysters in 17 minutes and 32 seconds.

But such heroic sprints are somehow less inspiring than the long-distance, amateur careers of Diamond Jim and his long-time friend, Lillian Russell. Jim restrained himself at breakfast. He ate no oysters, that is. But as a late-morning snack throughout his life, including holidays spent at the seashore during non-”r” months, he swallowed two or three dozen oysters and clams. More oysters preceded his lunch, and he downed another dozen for an afternoon snack, then ate some with his dinner. If he were supping that midnight, as he was inclined to do, he swallowed a few dozen more.