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Consider The Oyster

July 2024
14min read

It saved the early Colonists from starvation, it has caused men to murder each other, it used to be our most democratic food—in short, an extraordinary bivalve

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.”

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.

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.

And these are all natural hazards, quite apart from the works of man. The bon secours of Mobile Bay have been just about extinguished in recent years by industrial pollution, and any hopes for the recovery of Delaware Bay are precluded by the same modern hex. The sunbelt construction boom of the 1960's and 1970's appears to have doomed Galveston Bay oysters as their cultch (old shells) is scraped up by the megaton for manufacture into concrete, plate glass, and aluminum (and textiles, dry ice, soap, fertilizer, magnesium, and chicken feed). The universally honored small oysters of Yaquina Bay, Oregon, are no longer to be found in regional restaurants, the victim of “high mortalities from unknown sources” under study at Oregon State University.

But the major source of the oyster lover’s despair has been his own gluttony. So prodigious was it even in the colonial period that New York and New Jersey assemblies enacted conservationist laws in the seventeenth century. Several other colonial legislatures followed suit before the Revolution. The fabled Wellfleets temporarily disappeared before 1775. Local gourmands attributed the tragedy to a quarrel among oystermen, rather than to their intemperance at table. In fact, New England beds were so mercilessly raked over by the early nineteenth century that New England schooners began harvesting spats (seed oysters) from Long Island Sound and, later, the Chesapeake, for transplanting in their home waters. By the time of the Civil War, 650,000 bushels of seed oysters were carried annually from Maryland and Virginia to the North, but there was no tempering Puritan lust. They ate the transplanted three- and four-year-old “oysterlings” before the C. virginicas were fairly able to reproduce themselves. The New England beds never recovered.

But the Yankee foragers had demonstrated to the watermen of the Chesapeake that there was a demand for their oysters beyond the nearby plantations. “Foreign” oystermen were banned from the Bay, and New Englanders, New Yorkers, and the whole country were put on notice that, henceforth, they would buy their prizes from Virginia and Maryland. They were willing. In 1867, Northern capital financed a spur of the New York, Philadelphia, and Norfolk Railroad out the Anemessex peninsula on Maryland’s Eastern Shore. Its sole purpose was to reach the town of Crisfield, the sleepy marketing center of the Maryland watermen. Although the Anemessex line had a modest aim, it presented its own engineering problems. The last quarter mile to Crisfield consisted of tidal marsh and open water, and constructing the trestle over it took a year to complete. It was a temporary expedient. Shells from Crisfield’s processing sheds were dumped into the swamp so that, after a few years, the tracks ran on a solid pearly grade. Crisfield itself is built on the remains of countless generations of C. virginicas. Several downtown blocks are six feet higher than they were in 1867.

Although Maryland and Virginia oystermen acted together to expel the Yankee oystermen from their beds, they soon turned against one another. Actually, the “civil war” between the two states can be dated all the way back to 1632, when Charles I failed to draw the water boundary between Maryland and Virginia at the thalweg , or deepest part of the channel, as was the common practice. Rather, he decreed the border on the Potomac and other parts of the great estuary to be the highwater mark on the Virginia side. As might be expected, this annoyed Virginians, but not until the commercial oyster boom of the mid-nineteenth century did it cause undue violence. Then, the ancient charter had the effect of granting to Maryland practically all the Bay’s highly marketable oysters.

The “Jenkins Award” of 1877 transferred 23,000 acres of prime bottom to Virginia. (Today, 985 square miles of Chesapeake Bay are in Virginia, 703 in Maryland.) But the mischief was done. Maryland’s Smith’s Islanders especially refused to accept the Jenkins decision; their best beds were over the thalweg . The result was a shooting war until 1910, when the disputed beds finally played out. At least fifty men are known to have been killed between 1860 and 1890, another fifty wounded, and the actual figures are likely much higher. Fortunately, although both sides regularly employed artillery as well as small arms, the oystermen were not sharpshooters. As Harper’s Weekly observed in 1894, “They have fired abundantly, but not accurately, and enough lead has been wasted to supply sinkers for all the fishing lines along the Atlantic Coast.”

The hostilities were complicated by the fact that Marylander not only fought Virginian over territory, but tonger also fought dredger over methods of collecting the catch regardless of state allegiance. “Tonging” is the older and simpler method of oyster gathering. Working in a vessel which can be as small as a canoe, the oysterman pinches the oysters from their rocky moorings with a pair of hinged intersecting iron or steel rakes on the end of two long wooden handles. The tonger has several sets of his tools and usually works in a maximum of twenty feet of water (although tongs with forty-foot poles are still in use).

However, the best beds are at just these depths and, by the late nineteenth century, the conservation-minded Maryland legislature had reserved the prime areas for the tongers. Dredging—dragging a toothed scoop to which is affixed a sack made of chain—was banished to the less accessible, less productive bottoms. It is, of course, far more efficient than tonging and, in being so, is also more destructive. Those beds it does not scrape bare it disturbs and often ruins.

A complicated regulatory code had been enacted practically as soon as Maryland (and later Virginia) appreciated the economic value of the Chesapeake oysters. According to a scholarly study, the typical waterman, however, was “fanatical in his belief that the oyster, as a product of nature, is not amenable to such laws as apply to other kinds of food or property. ” So, in order to enforce its laws, Maryland in 1868 established the “State Fishery Force” or, as it was dubbed even in government documents, the “Oyster Navy.”

Not that the oyster pirates were easily intimidated by the flash of a badge. They fought a number of pitched battles with the fleet’s two steamers (armed with cannon) and twelve sloops, and several times sent the lawmen running. Once, in January, 1886, they nearly captured the Oyster Navy’s flagship Kent. The pirates’ boldness was encouraged by the fact that commissions in the Navy were strictly political until 1884. In that year a sloop commander was asked what he did when some Virginia dredgers fired on him, and responded, “Why, I heaved to and went home.” At this point, the Navy was reorganized under sterner sailors.

There have been shots fired down to the present, and a casualty as late as 1959. But oystermen now are forbidden by the laws of both states to carry firearms, and the “Navy” has become efficient. Its major job today is the enforcement of conservation laws. Indeed, the prim Methodism of the Marylanders, a legacy of the zealous Reverend Joshua Thomas, “the Apostle of the Eastern Shore,” makes it difficult to appreciate the lawless reputation of the watermen in the oyster’s golden age. Shorthanded captains were notorious for shanghaiing their crews and, when the season was over, “paying them off with the boom.”

An old-timer recalled, “Some captains would pay ‘em off decent but I heerd tell some would tell the green man, ‘Here, get on top of that cabin and sweep ‘er off,’ and when the man was up there, the captain, he’d jibe her [helm to the following wind] and the boom would swing hard over and knock the man into the water.”

Goode’s Fishery Industries of the United States (1887), otherwise a model of bureaucratese, burns with Victorian hyperbole when describing the Maryland dredgermen. They were “daring and unscrupulous men who regard neither the laws of God or men.” They were “perhaps one of the most depraved bodies of workmen to be found in the country … gathered from jails, penitentiaries, workhouses, and the lowest and vilest dens of the city.”

Oystering has always been backbreaking and, thanks to the monthswith-an-”r” tradition, bone-chilling work. In the Chesapeake Bay today, most of the men who crab in the summer turn to oysters for their income in the winter. But, as William Warner writes in his Beautiful Swimmers, “There is no air of expectation, no joy at the change-over.”

In order to conserve the resource, Maryland restricts oyster dredging (as opposed to tonging) to sailing vessels four days of the six-day week. The last commercial sailing fleet in the United States survives in the state. But it is disappearing as the oysters do. On the eve of the First World War, there were two thousand wind-powered dredgers and tongers licensed to reap the bay’s oysters. By the late sixties, there were forty-seven.

The story probably will have a happy ending; that is, no ending at all. Conservationist legislation and farming techniques have resulted in the stabilization and even the increase of national production. But they never will be cheap again. Except perhaps in New Orleans and in a few pockets on the Eastern Shore—where a family can still get a gunny sack full for a picnic at ten or twelve dollars—oysters will continue to appear mostly on the menus of expensive restaurants, a treat for the times when “money is no object.” Diamond Jim, at least, would not have been daunted.

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