Slimy, briny and amorphous; oysters are an implausible aphrodisiac and an unlikely delicacy. And yet, oysters are part of a cadre of much-valued foods with the fabled powers to generate sexual stimulation, along with chocolate and apparently striped bass. While oysters have long been shrouded in a myth of sensuality, they were not always so rarefied. In the nineteenth century, oysters were one of few foods that both rich and poor could agree were delicious, and they ate them with equal enthusiasm. Mark Kurlansky writes in The Big Oyster: History of the Half Shell that mid-nineteenth century New York oystermania “was one of the few moments in culinary history when a single food, served in more or less the same preparations, was commonplace for all socioeconomic levels.”
New York was synonymous with oysters long before it was known for its hotdogs and bagels. The nineteenth century waterways were so bountiful that oysters were sold as street food for pennies. New Yorkers were so mad for oysters that shuckers would work 10 hour days opening up 1,000 oysters per hour just to keep up with the demand.
Oysters could be found all over town and prepared in all sorts of ways: boiled, stuffed into in pies and stewed. In The House of Mirth, Lily Bart seeks refuge at a white table-clothed restaurant on 59th Street and Park Avenue where she has a rejuvenating snack of tea and stewed oysters. While just a few blocks downtown in Edith Wharton’s New York, oysters were casually consumed for a penny each off carts by the harbor.
When it came to oysters, elites were essentially indulgent gilded age locavores. Delmonico’s, New York’s original fine dining establishment, put oysters, or huîtres as was their francophile predilection, at the very top of their menu and set the trend for serving them raw on the half-shell. Oysters also attracted the attention of visitors to New York, including Charles Dickens who found most of America to be horrendous and did not hesitate to call parts of New York “loathsome, drooping, and decayed.” And yet, he found the New York oyster cellars “pleasant retreats” and seemed to enjoy their “wonderful cookery.”
I certainly cannot think of a single food item, even with the relative democratization of food over the past century and the increased access and exposure to a wider variety of cuisines, that would be equally celebrated at, let’s say Daniel’s and IHOP. I would love to be wrong about this (Cronuts at Dunkin’ Donuts don’t count), and maybe someone will point out that I am. But from what I can tell, I’m not.
A combination of pollution and bitter turf wars between competing fisherman caused the decline of New York’s oyster population. Eventually typhoid fever and cholera outbreaks forced the City Health Commission to close all the oyster beds in 1927, ending New York’s oyster bonanza.
New York is more socioeconomically divided today than it has been in over a century but it has been nearly as long since oysters were consumed with equal gusto by both the haves and have nots. But could it happen again? There are projects to revitalize New York’s oyster population, like efforts by the New York Harbor School and The River Project. But it’s doubtful that their numbers will ever get as high as they once were when oysters were so plentiful that their shells literally paved the streets.