Wednesday, February 16, 2011

The Big Oyster: History on the Half Shell

Are you an oyster lover? Oysters are bivalve mollusks which live and found in fresh or salt water. Filter-feeders, they are notably high in protein, low in calories, and are excellent sources of several minerals, including iron, zinc, calcium and selenium and a good source of vitamin B 12 and vitamin A. Preparation of oysters widely varies, as they can be eaten on the half shell, raw, smoked, boiled, baked, fried, roasted, stewed, canned, pickled, steamed, broiled, or used in a variety of drinks. My favorite way to eat oysters is raw on the half shell served cold on a bed of ice. Sometimes I top each oyster with a little freshly squeezed lemon juice or I add a bit of ground horseradish or cocktail sauce.  I relish them, as they are a delicious taste of the sea!

I just finished reading this excellent book that follows the history of New York City and the renowned oyster beds in the Hudson River estuary.  "Before New York City was the Big Apple, it could have been called the Big Oyster." according to Mark Kurlansky, author of the 2006 book The Big Oyster: History on the Half Shell As Kurlansky states in his book: "For centuries New York was famous for its oysters, which until the early 1900's played such a dominant a role in the city's economy, gastronomy, and ecology that the abundant bivalves were Gotham's most celebrated export, a staple food for the wealthy, the poor, and tourists alike, and the primary natural defense against pollution for the city's congested waterways." 

Kurlansky, who is also the best selling author of "Salt: A World History," and "Cod: A Biography of the Fish That Changed the World," writes in a wonderfully narrative, rambling, factual style that made me feel like I was auditing a university culinary history lecture. He includes historic recipes, maps, drawings and photos among the pages of the book so the reader is totally immersed in oyster lore and facts. He is such a good teacher that I wanted to learn more, and did some of my own research.

Oyster. Digital ID: 480021. New York Public Library
Photo Source: click on photo
Oyster  (1807-1809)

Oysters were extremely plentiful during the early history of New York City, and many were as large as dinner plates, as depicted in the illustration above. The estuary of the lower Hudson had 350 square miles of oyster beds that for centuries fed the Lenape Native Americans, the Dutch settlers, the English, and the Americans after the Revolution. They were a staple of their diet and New York's major export.

Oyster stands in Fulton Market... Digital ID: 806180. New York Public Library
Photo Source: click on photo
Oyster stands in Fulton Market. (1870)

New Yorkers rich and poor were eating them in oyster cellars, saloons, stands, houses, cafes and restaurants.  In some places oysters were sold as an "all you can eat" item for six cents.  In 1860, some 12 million oysters were sold in New York markets; by 1880 the area's oyster beds were producing 700 million a year.

Oyster Houses, South Street an... Digital ID: 482643. New York Public Library
photo source: click on photo
Oyster Houses, South Street and Pike Slip, Manhattan. April 01, 1937 -- notice the piles of discarded oyster shells in front of the buildings.

As the population of New York climbed, the constant discharge of garbage and sewage began to take a toll on the harbor floor. Outbreaks of cholera and typhoid from the apparent consumption of infected oysters began to occur and in 1927 the city's last oyster beds closed and purveyors switched to cleaner oyster sources.

The most common variety of oyster in the United States today is the Blue Point Eastern Oyster, which measures 2 to 5 inches across and can be found from the Gulf of Mexico to Prince Edward Island. They also have regional names: Apalachicola (Florida), Bluepoint (New York), Breton (Louisiana), Chincoteague (Virginia), Malpeque (Canada), and Wellfleet (Cape Cod). Because oysters, or any raw fish or shellfish, may contain harmful bacteria, which mainly comes from unregulated waters, pregnant woman or those with compromised immune systems should avoid eating them.

One of the historical subjects in "The Big Oyster" book that I found fascinating was the history of the Delmonico family and the Delmonico's Restaurant, the first of which was located at 56 Beaver Street in lower Manhattan. The restaurant's website states: "Delmonico's, opened in 1837 as America's first fine dining restaurant, continues to serve the connoisseur of fine American food in its premier location at 56 Beaver Street, the heart of Manhattan's financial district. Birthplace of the Delmonico Steak, Delmonico Potatoes, Eggs Benedict, Lobster Newburg, and Baked Alaska, the original Delmonico's offered unheard of luxury - the availability of private dining rooms, an extensive wine cellar, innovative cuisine, and, above all, warm, personal service."
The first building burned down in a fire and the present building seen in my photo above, replaced it in 1891. Many famous people ate at this establishment, including Queen Victoria and her eldest son, the Prince of Wales, Charles Dickens,Theodore Roosevelt, Mark Twain, Oscar Wilde, Diamond Jim Brady, Lillian Russell, J. P. Morgan, William Makepeace Thackeray.  Samuel F.B. Morse sent the first transatlantic cable from a dining room. An extensive history of the restaurant can be read at the Steak Perfection website.

A collage of photos from the restaurant's web site, which includes a 20 ounce prime rib-eye steak, grilled to perfection and topped with herbed butter, which is a signature dish that's the gold standard for all steak houses try to achieve.  The restaurant has changed ownership many time over the years, but it still retains the Delmonic's name and many of the signature dishes that have been a part of the Delmonico tradition since its early days.

A video on how to open a live oyster by a chef instructor, Gerard Viverito, of the Culinary Institute in New Hyde Park, New York.

For a truly elegant way to serve oysters try a mignonette sauce and caviar. The following recipe is adapted from The Culinary Institute of America's "Garde Manger, The Art and Craft of the Cold Kitchen."

Oysters with Mignonette Sauce and Caviar

Makes 2 servings

•2 tablespoons minced shallots
•6 tablespoons chopped chives
•1/3 cup champagne vinegar
•3 tablespoons cracked black pepper
•12 to 18 oysters
•1/2 ounce osetra caviar

1. In a medium sized bowl, combine the shallots, chives, vinegar, and pepper and reserve.
2. Shuck the oysters, loosen muscle from bottom shell, then remove oyster with top shell.
3. Place the oysters in their shells on a bed of crushed ice. Top each with mignonette sauce and a dollop of caviar.

No matter if you are an oyster connoisseur, or a history buff, you will find reading "The Big Oyster: History on the Half Shell" both entertaining and delicious!

I'm linking this post to  Jenny Matlock's Alphabe Thursday for this week's letter "S" for oyster's found in the Sea that taste so good Slurped right off the Shell!
I'm also linking to Michael Lee's "Foodie Friday" on her blog Designs By Gollum and Sandi's Friday's Favorites on her blog Whistlestop Cafe Cooking.
This is also an Edible Book Review inspired by Jain at Food for Thought, a delicious blog for readers with an appetite for the written word.  I will also be linking with Mary of the blog Home Is Where The Boat Is  who is hosting a "Cook Your Book and Join In The Fun" event March 1st -- I give The Big Oyster: History on the Half Shell **** for "good read!"

 Thank you all for your inspiration! Please visit all these wonderful blogs and join in on all the fun!

I will be choosing the winner of my "One World, One Heart" give away tomorrow, February 17, 2011.  Please check the original post on this link to see the winner. Thank you to all who entered!  It was so nice meeting so many wonderfully creative bloggers!

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From the Kitchen said...

Oysters at Delmonico's would certainly be a treat! Having them anywhere is always a treat! My mother did an oyster stew with those purchased at a grocery store and we all liked them. Believe it or not, my first oysters on the half shell were at The Pentagon in one of it's 30 restaurants/snack bars. They were shucked as you went through the line and ordered them. I wonder if there are still all those restaurants and if fresh oysters are still available.


Ginny said...

I love that Delminico's building!! Oh, I hate oysters and think they are slimy and gross, plus lots of people around here still get sick from them! But Phil LOVES them!! Every time we eat out, he asks about them, especially oyster stew, his favorite! Imagine my horror when we first started dating to find out his favorite meal was fried oysters! So I had to bread and handle the slimy things, ick!! I didn't know about those oyster beds in the Hudson, but I did know that lobsters used to be several feet long, and they were fed to the dogs and servants! I don't like lobsters either, but at least they aren't as slimy as oysters. I just won't eat anything that has eyeballs on stalks.

Donnie said...

Mother ate at Delmonico's in the 50-60"s and said it was the fanciest restaurant. I always love seeing your city.

Barbara said...

Interesting post! I never knew that NYC was an oyster haven at one time. While I love clams, oysters give me pause :-). I was also surprised to read that my absolute favorite dessert - baked Alaska - was from Delmonico's. Thanks, Pat! xo, Barbara F.

Grandmother said...

Great post- I learned a lot! I love oysters, and mussels, and scallops, and clams, and lobsters- grew up in Boston and had it all when I was young and fish/ seafood was cheap.

pam said...

Glory I learned a lot. I've only had oysters once....I was really young and started chewing the raw one....GROSS. I remember my dad still laughing. I've never tried them again. I can't imagine oysters the size of a dinner plate....WOW. As always beautiful pictures, great education....another tour of NYC. I so appreciate all the work you do for these posts....all the background info. Thanks Pat!

Becky said...

I grew up in Louisiana eating oysters on the half shell. So delicious. Also, I've read the book on salt, so I will check out the one on oysters. Thanks! And what a great choice for the letter "S". Very interesting.


Mary said...

What a wonderful review & such great information! We are oyster lovers at our house & on the half shell is our favorite way to eat them! I also recently discovered a Tyler Florence Oysters Rockefeller recipe that is easy & great too~

Coincidentally, I've just been reading a book on New Orleans & reading chapter: An Ode to an Oyster!

Thanks for whetting my appetite :-)

Ocean Breezes and Country Sneezes said...

I love to read about culinary history. While I tend to prefer my oysters cooked I must confess I've never had the nerve to eat a raw one! Oh, how I love a delmonico steak! This was truly a yummy post! Thanks for sharing all this great information! Oh, and I will be looking into that book!

Old Kitty said...

For some reason, I forget that NYC has near enough the sea lapping at its edges!! So of course oysters and sea food are or should be its staple!!! What a brilliant history and a fab book too - thanks for the info and the review!

I like how the Delmonico restaurant evolved historically too, from humble beginnings as a cafe, to a restaurant, to a hotel restaurant!! Fantastic!

All this talk of food has made me hungry! Take care, Pat! x

Personalized Sketches and Sentiments said...

OH! Each and every time I see the photographs you share of your city is an amazing adventure and treat to me! Thank you for the history and interesting facts about the oyster...

Blessings & Aloha!(dear friend, my limited time due to work, allows me to get one post up a week, return visits and then squeeze in a few others!) Hope all is well!

Lily Hydrangea said...

I wish I had the guts to eat them raw. I remember doing so as a kid & loved them but now I'm too chicken.
Nonetheless your photo of the oyster plate looks absolutely scrumptious.

Claudia said...

It's been eons since I had an oyster or thought about Delmonico's. What a fascinating post - I had no idea of the rich oyster beds in NY Harbor. The photo of the discarded shells did give me pause!

Yvette said...

Pat: I made a vow long ago never to eat anything gray and I have lived my life keeping that vow. HA!
Loved your post. Delmonico's would be a great place to go for a special occasion. I didn't even know they were still in business!
Gorgeous photos.

JDaniel4's Mom said...

Both books sounds great! It sounds like they would make great PBS documentaries.

From Beyond My Kitchen Window said...

I love raw oysters with a dash of Tabasco sauce. Fried are delicious also. Another wonderful blog post with rich NYC history mixed in.

Cheryl said...

Fascinating read. I just knew you'd hit a part where pollution would kill the oysters in the Hudson. Had to happen.

La Petite Gallery said...

Can't believe you did Delmonico's I have their orig cook book it is like 4 inches thick. My Dad gave it to me. This was so interesting
you mesmerize me with the fasinating posts.. I love oysters Rockefeller the most.
That is the orig recipe. Some restaurants don't know hoe to make them.


CollectIn Texas Gal said...

As always...great information and photos of New Yorks interesting places and History! We Texans love oysters from the Gulf of Mexico. We have to wait for them to be in season...those of us further from the coast! But when they are available, it's worth the wait. I can't even imagine how good they must be from the Hudson! Thanks for the recipe...probably won't do the caviar, but you never know....maybe Salsa would work, too!

Carol said...

Interesting post, never knew that about NYC! I loved oysters for years, but developed an allergy to shellfish! I would have loved the way you have them, on ice with a squeeze of lemon and some cocktail sauce!

Rocky Mountain Woman said...

Oysters on the half shell are probably my hands down favorite food..
Thanks for the beautiful history lesson..


The Gathering Place said...

What an educational post on something so tasty. My husband just loves all sea food and he would LOVE to visit those restaurants! I enjoy most sea food, but I'm not an oyster fan (but I'd enjoy the trip there)!

Farmchick said...

I have to say that I have never tried a raw oyster. I love the Delmonico's building. Gorgeous and some great history.

joeyandaleethea said...

What a fantastic post!! The photos of the restaurants are awesome, the food too! Now not only do I yearn for Oysters, but for eating them in the one and only New York City!! My favorite oyster bar was in Coney Island - the name escapes me at the moment - but I spent many summer weekends there just for their seafood. Off to rack my brain to figure out the name! :) Thanks so much for visiting my blog, I'm happy I found yours!!

Tanna at The Brick Street Bungalow said...

I loved oysters on the half shell when I was young... now, I prefer them to be slightly cooked. My current fav is grilled over a mesquite fire with a smidge of champagne, garlic and butter. yummmm...

Anonymous said...

Love oysters...raw on the half shell...nothing added. Don liked them this way and made into Oyster Stew! Great post...will look for the book...Delmonico's is fantastic...glad to know they're still alive and kicking or is that cooking? Thank you for sharing NYC...I LIKE it!

Urbanna Virginia has an annual Oyster can eat oyster raw, cooked, anyway you like them...check it out:

Judie said...

GREAT post!! I really learned a lot.
I used to love raw oysters until I got really sick one night in New Orleans after eating some. I love to make oyster stuffing, and oyster stew, though. I get to eat it all by myself, because Rod doesn't like it. AW! Too bad!

Debbie said...

I can't wait to show my husband this oyster post! He grew up in NYC, and he'll know about about the oyster history. We both love raw oysters with a splash of American style sauce that includes Tabasco, Worestershire and red wine vinegar. When we are at our cottage in the winter, I serve oysters on the half on a platter of snow to keep them chilled! A great post.


Kris said...

I love almost all fish, but I can't do oysters!
On previous post....I have been to Italy, and have been to Verona. I have the same photos. I adored the movie Letters To Juliet!!!

Vee said...

I don't know how one begins to eat raw oysters on the half shell. My grandmother used to encourage me to give it a go, but oh dear, the mere thought. Some of us are missing a lot I'm thinking. I enjoyed seeing all the photos, current and vintage.

Anonymous said...

Pat i could slurp about 3 dozen,yum!

Pondside said...

We love our Fanny Bay, British Columbia oysters! They are a real treat. My husband loves them with a squirt of lemon and a little horseradish but I love mine.....pan fried in an oyster burger.
Funny that we posted about similar subjects this week!

Sarah said...

Pat, thank you for sharing this review. You always enlighten me with each new post! I'm not a fan of raw oysters, but enjoyed reading this. Give me shrimp, and I'm happy!
Glad you are linking to the next FFT. ~ Sarah

Buttercup said...

Fascinating post. I passed Delmonico's a week or so ago while I was walking from the subway to a meeting, and as ever admired the building. I've had a drink there, but not eaten a meal there. I'm a big fan of friend oysters, but not raw ones. Hope you're having a great week. I'm loving the weather!

once in a blue moon said...

love love love this, 100% food for thought fun!

Glenda/MidSouth said...

Enjoyed this post! However, have to admit - I do not like oysters on half shell. I have tried, but it just did NOT work out and I don't care for them fried either. But then not every one likes the same things, and that is a good thing. :D
I always enjoy your posts and seeing a city I have never been to.

Oliag said...

Oh I do love oysters! and now I feel a real urge to go out and get some soon! Great post! It is nice to see all the oyster farming going on around here now:)

Ola said...

I am not oyster lover although I generally love sea food. Maybe beacuse I tried them only 2 times -raw

Gracie said...

I don't like raw fish or shellfish of any kind (I tried oysters once in Brittany region of France) but your post is so well written and interesting, I sure didn't know this part of NYC history.

Teresa said...

Thanks for the recipe!!! Love it

btw, bird nest ( is made up of about 58% soluable proteins...the highest amoung all food and even synetic protein powders

it greatly increase tissue regeneration

Tracy said...

Fascinating! Delmonico's... it's still a NYC dream, isn't?! Oysters...mmm... Haven't had them in ages, love them raw. Those books sound so good--adding to my list! Happy Day, Pat :o) ((HUGS))

Infatuated with Homes and Gardens said...

I love oysters too, in Sydney we have 2 kinds mostly ,Sydney Rock oysters(small and sweet) or Pacific Oysters(fat rich and creamy) I love the pacific ones done Kilpatrick, grilled with bacon and worcestshire sauce:)

Houseelf said...

Fascinating. In the UK the Romans used oysters a bit like how we use crisps (potato chips) so the shells turn up on any Roman dig. It's a standing joke almost.

I love Scotish smoked oysters on oatcakes... and the odd bit of smoked salmon on some too. :-)

My Carolina Kitchen said...

What a wonderful story of oysters Pat. We love our oysters, but prefer the small ones. I can only imagine how elegant it must be to dine on oysters at Delmonicos. I did have a bowl oyster chowder at Grand Central Station a long time ago.

Mignonette sauce is our favorite too.

Sheila said...

I'm sure you could win an award for the most knowledgeable "amateur" historian in New York. Your posts are enjoyable because they are so informative. Oysters are a family favorite here and when my parents still lived on Vancouver Island I often flew back across the Rocky Mountains with containers of fresh oysters, wrapped in newspaper inside a cooler bag. Now we get them at Super Store an hour and a half away ... My husband's birthday is in March so that's something to put on next month's shopping list.

Judy ~ My Front Porch said...

What a wonderful source of information you are. I have never tasted raw oysters...and have never been even a wee bit tempted. Until now!

Who would have known that oysters were such a part of NYC history?

Betsy from Tennessee said...

Hi Pat, I love FRIED oysters ---but have only eaten ONE raw oyster. One of my sons dared me to eat one (he loves them). I put one on a cracker with some horseradish on top, popped it in my mouth and swallowed it... I refused to chew it... ha ha ha

Great post... Very interesting.

nanny said...

The first picture makes my mouth water......I love oysters!
It is so funny, I just got up from having lunch with my husband and our topic over lunch was Oysters!!! A friend of his told him that the cans of smoked oysters at Wal Mart (by the cans of tuna) are really tasty.....this led us to talk about all the places we have enjoyed oysters on the half shell......Great Post, so very interesting! Lemon, horseradish, saltines....oh my!

Anonymous said...

Loved this post Pat! Our little town of Fair Haven was an Oyster town and the history goes that one of the main streets were paved over oyster shells. We like oysters...a lot! I have never been to Delmonico's... maybe something to put on my list for the future,
♥, Susan

LDH said...

I love reading the history ~ you have done a fantastic job putting this post together. I have children that love oysters. They are a little hard for me to get down.

I like oyster stew and would make it for my dad.

Great stopping by to visit with you!

Sandi @the WhistleStop Cafe said...

I could eat a lot of oysters for 6cents!
A friday's favorite for sure :-)

Donna@Conghaile Cottage said...

BEAUTIFUL POST!!! and I LOVED the book! I love all seafood BUT I eat NONE raw! although all my sons AND Hubby LOVE "On the half shell" AND sushi...I would just like to gather it up and take it home and POP it under the broiler! What a wonderful post you created here and you didn't leave ANYTHING OUT!!! One day you and I will have to meet half way for lunch...OH I LOVE Hyde Park too...
Hugs to you, Donna

Betsy said...

What a fun post, Pat! My aunt makes oyster stuffing at Thanksgiving. That is the only time I've ever tried oysters. But I love seafood so I imagine I would like them just fine.

Love that Delmonico's charming!

luke said...

OHHH--on the half shell, Bienville, Rockefeller, on a po' boy--love them! This was a very informative post and I loved the pictures, especially Delmonico's. Our favorite place to eat them is at Felix's in New Orleans. Great post!

Kathleen said...

I won't eat the oysters, but I love that brand of crackers. We still dig oysters here down the block. Dh likes them.
Loved reading the history. You are a wealth of info.
Did you ever read about Blue Point and the clam industry here on L.I?
There's a great little museum in W Sayville.

⚜ ↁℯℬℬᴵℰ⚜ said...

I totally have to bookmark this page for my hubs to see. He loves those little slimy do a lot of people. Great post. Thanks for stopping by and I see you entered the giveaway page...COOL...good luck! XO

Lovella ♥ said...

Pat . usual you provide us with such interesting facts of NY. .and now I know something about the Oyster cultivation. I never knew. I don't know where I thought they came from.
I have only eaten smoked oysters but you've convinced me I must give them a try next chance I get.

bj said...

Living on the plains of West Texas all my life, I have never developed a taste for sea foods. Just the WORD Oyster makes me shiver. :)
Mr. Sweet, on the other hand, loves everything that comes out of the water, oysters on the half shell being one of his favorites.
Thanks bunches for all the info in this wonderful post.

~Lavender Dreamer~ said...

This is so interesting! I love your photos and I always learn something new! I mentioned you on my post this morning! Hugs my friend! ♥♥♥

~Lavender Dreamer~ said...

PS Congrats to your OWOH winner! I love the journal and marked the link! It sure has been FUN this year! ♥

Jenny said...

Well, I'd love to go along with you on some of these jaunts! This one, though, I'd just have to eat the bread and order a salad!

Most of the people in my family love seafood...especially fresh oysters on the half shell or shooters....ummm....shiver, shiver.

I, however, prefer to look out the window or study a spot on the carpet with great intent when anyone is imbibing these gastronimical pleasures.

Thanks for a superb link for Alphabe-Thursday's letter "S".

It always feels so special to visit you here!


myletterstoemily said...

my husband loves oysters, but i have to
admit i probably just like the crackers
and cocktail sauce.

Susan said...

Hi Pat, I'll be back to read this...but I am here to ask you to come see the top few posts on my blog :)

diane b said...

I loved oysters until I got a slither of shell stuck in my throat for a week. Another time I had food poisoning after eating them. So I was put off for a while but I still eat them occasionally but not with my original enthusiasm. Thanks for the interesting history of Oysters in NY and the story of Delmonico's Restaurant.

Trotter said...

Hi Pat! Oysters and caviar... you're driving us crazy... ;)
And Delmonico's; it has been sometime since the last dinner there... :-(

Keen on modern art? Blogtrotter Two has it... Enjoy and have a great weekend. Hopefully sunny!!

Anonymous said...

hi pat,

i believe i have something of yours on my blog :)


:) mary ann

EliFla said...

Wonderful post!!!

I don't like oysters, but hubby does and ate a great dish as the one in your picture at Grand Terminal Oyster bar!!!! I ate other delicious fish dishes!!!Have a great Sunday, hugs, Flavia

GMG said...

Saw your comment on Sydney.
It's a fabulous city... Actually one of the two most beautiful in the world, but the other (Stockholm) only in summer... ;)There are two more posts from 1992, which you may find at
The pictures are lousy; by that time I was recording the best in video...

TheRobotLunchBox said...

I have never tried oysters, i've just never had the chance. But your post has inspired me to hunt some down!

Ames said...

Love your post. And love New York City. It has so much to offer. Our first time visiting was to see the Macy's Thanksgiving Day parade. Not something I'll do again though. You see so much more on TV. But we also took in a lot of other wonderful sights! About the oysters. My husband loves them! Me? I couldn't gag one down. There's just something about the green guts that turns me off. Sorry! :( But I tell my husband he can eat all he wants if he wants to take me to a seafood restaurant! :) ~Ames

Jingle said...

love it,
I have been eating these ever since childhood.

thanks for the inspirations.

Nona Nita said...

My grand uncles all worked in the Oyster house out in Greenport, Long Island, when they first got off the boat from Italy in 1915. I guess you can say that oysters were an important staple on my family's path to the American Dream.

Beverly said...

I love, love, love oysters. My grandfather used to drive to the docks and bring back bags full when I was a little girl.

I've never met an oyster I didn't like.♥

Oh, except for one that gave me food poisoning about 25 years ago.