by Carolyn Sponza AIA LEED AP
Event: The Big Oyster; History on the Half Shell, part of the Downtown Third Thursdays lecture series.
Location: India House, Marine Room, 02.15.07
Speaker: Mark Kurlansky — author, food historian
Organizer: Downtown Alliance
“Oysters were what New York was all about,” according to historian and author Mark Kurlansky, recalling the mollusk’s once defining place in the city’s history. Traces of the oyster industry may have all but vanished, but New York was once littered with street corner oyster carts, 24-hour oyster markets, and alcohol-fueled dives known as oyster cellars. In the 1800’s, New York’s cultural identity was tied to the oyster. “You rarely find a food that satisfies all socioeconomic backgrounds at one time,” said Kurlansky.
A strange tale of environmental caution lies at the root of why the native oyster has all but disappeared from the city’s cultural and culinary memory. The Hudson River estuary enables oysters to thrive with its brackish combination of salt- and freshwater. Dutch settlers enjoyed saucer-sized oysters; the oyster trade fueled the city’s growth and filled its tables. Beginning in the 1890s however, the Hudson’s oyster beds became contaminated by raw sewage causing cholera outbreaks. By 1930, it was illegal to harvest oysters, and by 1960 the water was too polluted for them to grow at all. Thanks to improvements brought about by the Clean Water Act, oysters can be found in the Hudson River today, though PCBs and heavy lead make them dangerous to consume. Someday, with the help of sustainable planning, New Yorkers might enjoy Hudson River oysters again, but never will they be plentiful enough to fuel an entire city.