The Library: The Big Oyster – History on the Half Shell

Still being somewhat on the sickly side, I’ve spent more time reading about food than making or eating it lately. Which is okay, since I’ve had a bunch of these titles archived on my Kindle for ages and am just now getting to crack them open.


I seem to be on a bit of a food history kick right now. Just finished reading Mark Kurlansky’s very entertaining The Big Oyster: History on the Half Shell. This one is definitely written much more in the vein of a magazine’s historical interest piece than a strict academic text — full of lots of anecdotes, historical recipes, and interesting digressions into the lives of colorful individuals. It’s a dual history, tracking both the Eastern oyster and the city of New York from early European colonization to the 21st century. As a result, it sometimes spends more time dabbling in the side stories of one subject than the other, but in the end manages to twine them both together again. Very readable for those that love seafood, and also gives an interesting slant on things for those familiar with New York. Being a West Coaster myself, I’m sure a lot of the local references were lost on me. However, I’ve been to the city enough to know the general layout and it’s fascinating to think of that most urban of urban places as the idyllic estuary overflowing with natural bounty that the book describes.

Given how I LOVE oysters in just about every form possible, and am constantly bemoaning the lack of fresh local shellfish, this book has gone a little ways towards helping that craving. Or possibly made it worse, I’m not entirely sure. I mean, just check out this quote: “New York Harbor contained fully half of the world’s oysters. Anyone in the area need not have traveled far to reach into shallow waters and pluck oysters like ripe fruit.” Mrr. And the long section on all-you-can-eat oyster bars for a few cents? Wistful sigh.

Did I mention the cool historical recipes? From Roman (though I think the problem with that one is mostly having to make my own garum) to Renaissance (“Shelle oystyrs into a pott and the sewe therwith. Put therto fayre watyr; perboyle hem.”) to Gilded Age French recipes involving complicated sauces and the liberal use of egg yolks. I might just try some of these on a more adventurous day, though I’m sure there would need to be a fair amount of improvisation and creative interpretation with most of them.

Interesting tidbits! There used to be a Hudson River caviar industry from local sturgeon — bars would offer caviar free, like peanuts, because it was salty and made people buy more drinks. We call cookies “cookies” instead of biscuits because of the Dutch word “koeckjes”. Americans used to eat the majority of their oysters cooked — the raw on the half-shell thing was mostly European until pretty close into modern times. There used to be huge sharks living in New York Harbor, right where people liked to swim.

Sigh. I wonder what sort of bribes it would take to get the local supermarket’s fish counter to special order shellfish for me…?

Edited 4/6/2015: Now linked in the VK Store!


  1. Is it kind of an easy read? My mom LOVES oysters and she’s probably going to have a lot of down time soon (she’s just starting treatment for cancer) so it might be a nice present for her, if it’s not going to take a huge amount of brain power to read.

    (I don’t mean “see jane run” easy, just the way that some writing kind of flows along so it’s not a lot of work to follow it, you know?)

    • Yes, I would say it’s a pretty easy read. It’s got a very rambling conversational tone to it that is not nearly as dry as the previous history I read. More like a feature article, like I said. And it doesn’t get too tied down in the science, just kind of gives enough for the layperson to get by with, then goes on with the story. Lots of great descriptions, too. Yeah, definitely more in the fun category and less in the academic category, especially if you like the subjects.

  2. I LOVE oysters!! Best meal I ever had was an oyster dish I had at the Redfish Grill in New Orleans. Now there’s a city that knows how to do shellfish!

  3. Making garum is much less difficult than it might seem, and substantially less gross. You just have to plan six to eight weeks in advance. Or substitute it with Thai fish sauce if you feel like cheating.

    • So I’m led to believe! I conveniently ran across a recipe for it that just involves packing a fish with salt and popping it in a jar, but I still suspect that leaving it sitting on the balcony for the next several weeks to months while it digests itself might meet with some opposition from the neighbors. Yes, on second thought, that fish sauce idea sounds very good, and is close enough that it probably won’t make that much difference in the recipe after all. Thank you for the suggestion 😉

      PS. So… does this mean you’ve made it?!

  4. I have totally made it. It was a class project in undergrad, and it turned out pretty well, I think (they wouldn’t let me taste it). No fishy smell, not gross in appearance, just liquid floating on top of a bunch of salted fish.

    • That is awesome. It’s a shame that you weren’t allowed to try it — probably some legal and food safety issues that’d be too cumbersome to get the paperwork done for. I guess it isn’t that dissimilar to the liquid I drain off of gravlax (like we talked about more than a year ago), except… well, MUCH more aged. I think they add special molds and yeasts to fish sauce, though? It makes me wonder… if I did in the fridge and sealed it well, there shouldn’t be *that* much odor leakage, right? I have this fascination with trying to make stuff from ancient recipes. I’m still trying to find a recipe for century eggs that can be accomplished by the home cook using supermarket ingredients that approximates what they used to do in ancient China.

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