Consider The Oyster

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As for Miss Russell, she could never quite keep up with Jim. But he always said that “for a woman, Nell done damn well,” maybe two dozen to Jim’s three.

The bulk of these two enthusiasts must not, however, be blamed on Bluepoints. Prodigious feats of oyster consumption were possible because oysters are as much as 89 per cent water. There are only about seven calories in the most colossal C. virginica . Eating a hundred is scarcely more filling than drinking a quart of beer.

The striking fact about oysters in Diamond Jim’s time was not, however, that a big spender could indulge himself so, nor that, in 1889, genius guided the hand of New Orleans’ Antoine Alciatore to bake oysters with eighteen other ingredients (celery, shallots, chervil, tarragon, Tabasco, anise, and Herbsaint among others: the restaurant will name the fixings, but not the proportions or the procedure) to create Huitres en coquilles àla Rockefeller , Oysters Rockefeller, perhaps the single greatest American contribution to haute cuisine .

The most striking fact was that, as Dickens observed, oysters and poverty still went together. They were cheap. Oysters were a workingman’s staple. The “oyster house” was a social institution of the urban Irish as sacred as church and saloon, and the latter was likely to have oysters too. A laborer could lunch for pennies on a plate for which an American today would pay five dollars and up. The “Canal Street Plan,” observed in Boston, Philadelphia, and Baltimore as well as in New York, advertised “all you can eat” for six cents (although it generally was assumed that the management would discourage excessive appetites by dipping into a hidden bin stocked with spoiled C. virginicas ). In New Orleans the oyster “po’ boy,” fried oysters stuffed into a buttered loaf of bread, was nicknamed the “peacemaker": the workman who had lingered too long at his saloon, and perhaps overspent his allowance, bought one to ease his readmission to the domestic hearth.

The workingman’s oyster bar was no Waldorf. There were no “plates” at all. The happy connoisseur stepped up to a marble counter with his mug of lager and nodded a taciturn shucker into action as one starts a race. Faster than the customer could swallow them whole, a good shucker pried the sheik open with a heavy knife and placed them on the cool slab. The documented record for opening oysters is 100 in 3 minutes, 1 second. When the customer had had his fill, he signaled again and the shells were stacked, counted (by the dozen), and the bill rendered. Because the purist ate his oyster not only raw, but alive, the sadistic but poetic legend was often posted on the wall describing how, as the oyster died from attack by gastric juices in “exquisite agony,” it emitted a long, unheard, metaphysical scream.

In New Orleans, and here and there elsewhere, as in the Grand Central Station Oyster Bar and Restaurant in New York City, a semblance of the old institution survives. But the golden age of the oyster is gone. Just about the time that the gaslights were dimmed for the last time, the oyster retreated too, until, today, he is something like the gas lamps that urban redevelopers install on “pedestrian malls,” a bauble of the nostalgia boom accessible principally to the affluent.

It is a matter of supply. In 1850, the Mid-Atlantic and Chesapeake states alone recorded a catch of 145,000,000 pounds of oyster meat (shells excluded). In 1901 this had declined to 111,000,000, to 45,000,000 in 1935, 28,000,000 in 1960, and 26,000,000 in 1970. These figures work out to a national oyster feast on Chesapeakes alone in 1850 of six pounds, six ounces for every American man, woman, and child; by 1977 the catch amounted to a paltry six ounces per person, not much more than a middling Lynnhaven on the half shell.

Nature did its part in this dirty work. The oyster has plenty of natural enemies. Oyster drills, a kind of snail, can wreak amazing havoc on a bed. A single starfish can consume fifty oysters in a week. In 1958, perhaps 95 per cent of the oysters in Long Island Sound were wiped out by a starfish invasion, and the Grand Central Oyster Bar and Restaurant was obliged to announce, with a fitting air of regional disgrace, that Chesapeakes would be served during the shortage. A blight called MSX, “multinucleate sphere X,” destroyed the Delaware Bay beds between 1956 and 1959 and menaced the Chesapeake. “MSX has finished us down here,” an oysterman on the lower bay said, “just as sure as go-to-be-hung.” Hurricanes suffocate C. virginica by the millions in stormy years.