Wednesday, June 14, 2006

The Big Oyster

I started reading Mark Kurlansky’s latest book, The Big Oyster: History on the Half Shell, from an odd perspective. A few winters ago I was reading one of his earlier books, Cod, when the method of his productivity dawned on me. Kurlansky had written a lot of books – Cod, and Salt, and The Basque History of the World, and Choice Cuts among them. I wasn’t sure in which order they were written, but it didn’t matter: I realized you can’t write comprehensively about cod without knowing that salt was an essential preservative and without also knowing that Basque fishermen were among the first to travel across the Atlantic to the great cod fishing grounds. What Kurlansky was good at, among other things, was using leftovers. The stuff he learned and didn’t use in one book went into the next, culminating in Choice Cuts, a compendium of food stories and anecdotes, excerpts and recipes.

At the time this insight came to me (and I realize I wasn’t the only one it ever came to), I was tormenting myself about having written one book but not a second. Kurlansky provided the answer, I thought, or at least the model – I needed to mentally comb through my left over research to see what might lead to another book. Adriaen Block and the Dutch were interesting, but I’m a reporter not a historian and I didn’t want to commit myself to a lot of library research and no first-hand reporting. The problem of the pollution of coastal waters by nitrogen along the east coast and the Gulf of Mexico was extremely important, but I didn’t think I could find the money to finance the reporting trips or the time to take them.

And then I thought of oysters. Oysters were a luxury food, and so might be considered glamorous and sexy; there was a lot of good and accessible primary and secondary material about them; they were directly connected to environmental health; there were viable remnants of the oyster industry nearby for convenient reporting; and I had folders full of information I had used in my book.

So for several weeks I set to it, reading and taking notes and thinking about what form an oyster book should take. And then, for reasons having to do with maintaining a fulltime job and a reasonably happy family life, I let the oyster project drop.

When I heard, some months ago, that Kurlansky was about to publish a book about oysters, my first thought was, “Damn, it could have been me.” My second thought was, “That’s probably not true because if I could have done it, I would have, and in any case, it makes perfect sense for Kurlansky to have done it.”

So a couple of weeks ago I started to read a copy of The Big Oyster that my wife, Gina, had brought home from the library. I was prepared to dislike it; I had gotten only about three quarters of the way through Cod, a small book, before being bored. But it turns out that The Big Oyster is fun and lively, and worth a look. And if a book about oysters and New York isn’t enough to interest you on its own, keep in mind that when Kurlansky writes about the oysters of New York Harbor, he means not just the Upper and Lower Bay but all the connected harbors and rivers and streams, including Raritan Bay and what oystermen called the East River, which was Long Island Sound as far east as Norwalk and Port Jefferson.

Not surprisingly in a book by someone who wrote Choice Cuts, The Big Oyster is mainly about eating oysters. Kurlansky reproduces 33 old oyster recipes, and sketches at length the many ways New Yorkers ate oysters, particularly in the 19th century. More surprisingly is that there are long sections that seem to be about eating in general, and have very little to do with oysters per se. There’s also stuff about native oysters and oyster cultivation and about the environmental degradation that has damaged and destroyed oysters and oyster beds – in fact one of the threads of the book (and it’s a thin thread at times) is the penchant of New Yorkers for using their best ecosystems to dispose of garbage and sewage.

Kurlansky ties the thread in his epilogue, when he writes:

It is difficult not to ask the question: Are ten million or more people not too many to be living on one estuary? … Perhaps it is not just unnatural but a threat to nature. Perhaps that many people just won’t fit. After all, that is not what estuaries were designed for. Ten million people produce far too much garbage.

Those are good questions but after what Kurlansky has described, they seem a bit too timid. They are also perhaps a bit beside the point: Are ten million or more people not too many to be living on one estuary? Well, yes, but it’s a bit too late to stop it.

Kurlansky is a pro and he turns out his books at a rapid pace, but one of the disadvantages is that sometimes he seems to be writing on auto-pilot. Forced transitions and wooden phrases are not uncommon (although they’re not common enough to have made me stop reading). He appears at times to hardly have re-read what he wrote. On page 277, for example, he says, “As for the Gowanus Canal … it still does not have enough oxygen for fish or oyster beds.” But on the next page he asserts, “Even the Gowanus Canal got a flushing system that made the water clear enough for fish to return.” And he calls a little embayment on the south shore of Staten Island both “Prince’s Bay” and “Princess Bay.” When I was growing up on Staten Island, you’d see it spelled both ways and nobody knew which was right; but if you’re using it in a book, you need to pick one and stick with it.

But as I said, I enjoyed The Big Oyster. It’s loaded with interesting facts and anecdotes.

Kurlansky writes, for example, that the Dutch word for shell was “kalck,” which I deduce has the same root as calcium and from which, I figure, is the source of the word “cultch,” which is what oystermen call the old oyster shells on which they plant spat – which, by the way, Kurlansky says is the oystermen’s past tense of spit, because oystermen thought that when oysters emitted eggs and sperm, they were spitting.

He mentions, as all observers do, that in the old days, North American oysters were huge (European oysters, which are a different genus, don’t grow as big). In fact, oysters around here were too big, in the eyes of some. William Makepeace Thackerary, the English novelist, couldn’t deal with them at all. Eating American oysters, he said, was “like eating a baby.” But still people bought them. Saddle Rocks, an oyster named after part of Norwalk’s oyster beds, sold like crazy at a time when you could fill a bushel basket with 25 of them (rather than 250, which was a more typical amount in a bushel).

In the 1800s, he writes, oysters could be had in New York for six cents – not a piece, but all you could eat. This was at a time when strawberries imported in the cold months from the Mediterranean were selling for half a dollar each.

And, most interestingly to me, Kurlansky says that some biologists estimate that New York Harbor contained half the world’s oysters. There were so many, in fact, that they were capable of filtering the entire contents of the harbor in a few days. If nothing else, this sounds to me like a great argument for doing all we can to bring back the great oysters beds of the old days.


Blogger Sam said...

Hey Tom you write like a champ and it's easy to read - well, as long as you're not making excuses for not writing a book.

I read an interesting article on National Fisherman (of all places) that the American Oyster is making a big come-back in DelMarVa. It is not on the old oyster beds or where the Corps of Engineers are putting shell, concrete rubble, and so forth onto traditional "beds." Nope, it's right on the docks and rip-rap.

I found this interesting. The hunch is that the rays (cownose and others) hunt the beds and crunch the small oysters like candy (nice throat bones on those puppies).

You're not a historical dude or someone prone to waxing eloquent about a 1885 recipe for baked oysters with bam-bam sauce. You're a hunter. You hunt the storyline, where it is happening, and how to catch it perfect for the print.

Hunt first, then write. The story of the American Oyster is not over by any means.

9:26 PM  

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