The Big Oyster

The Big Oyster by Mark Kurlansky Read Free Book Online

Book: The Big Oyster by Mark Kurlansky Read Free Book Online
Authors: Mark Kurlansky
New Yorkers did not develop a deep-sea fishing industry until the 1760s. This may have been because so much food was available to them in their shallow, calm waterways. They did not have the cod and herring of Holland, but the rivers were teaming with shad and sturgeon, and anyone could hand-line from the shore of Manhattan and land striped bass.
    The estuary of the lower Hudson had 350 square miles of oyster beds. The beds were found along the shore of Brooklyn and Queens, in Jamaica Bay, in the East River, on all shores of Manhattan, tucked into the many coves of a coastline much more jagged than it has become today because of landfills. Oyster beds also prospered along the Hudson as far up as Ossining, and along the Jersey shore down to Keyport, in the Keyport, Raritan, and Hackensack rivers, on many reefs surrounding Staten Island, City Island, Liberty Island, and Ellis Island. The Dutch called Ellis Island and Liberty Island Little Oyster Island and Great Oyster Island because of the sprawling natural oyster beds that surrounded them. According to the estimates of some biologists, 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. The following recorded incident suggests the casual harvest. On December 29, 1656, a group of Dutch left Fort Amsterdam to travel by canoe to present-day Westchester, possibly New Rochelle. At Hell Gate, the crook of angry churning water where the East River meets Long Island Sound, there are treacherous rocks that they dared not attempt to pass in low tide. They pulled over to the Manhattan shore at a spot that today would be under the Triboro Bridge and, while waiting for the tide to change, gathered up oysters and ate them.
    Washington Irving, in his 1809 book,
A History of New York from the Beginning of History to the End of the Dutch Dynasty,
which chronicled Dutch times with only a slightly mischievous license, also referred to this lazy abundance in a story about a shipwreck at Hell Gate that cast survivors on the shore of Mana-hata:
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    The stores which had been provided for the voyage by the good housewives of Communipaw were nearly exhausted, but, in casting his eyes about, the commodore beheld that the shore abounded with oysters. A great store of these was instantly collected; a fire was made at the foot of a tree; all hands fell to roasting and broiling and stewing and frying, and a sumptuous repast was soon set forth. This is thought to be the origin of those civic feasts with which, to the present day, all our public affairs are celebrated, and in which the oyster is ever sure to play an important part.
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    The Europeans had adopted the Indian custom of designating this casual harvest, taking a few oysters for dinner, as a woman’s chore. In 1634, this poem by William Wood was published in London:
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    The luscious lobster, with the crab-fish raw,
    The brinish oyster, mussels, perriwigge,
    And tortoise sought by the Indian Squaw,
    Which to the flatts dance many a winter’s jigge,
    To dive for cockles and to dig for clams,
    Whereby her lazy husbands guts she cramms.
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    Oysters were also harvested commercially and were served in taverns. But a 1621 diary complained that “very large oysters” were so easily picked up by the seashore that it was difficult to sell them in New Amsterdam. One New Amsterdam settler referred to “oysters we pick up before our fort . . . some so large they must be cut into two or three pieces.” New Amsterdam settlers grabbed so many oysters at the nearby water’s edge that in 1658, the Dutch council issued an ordinance against harvesting oysters in the two rivers immediately at the town’s shore. This meant rowing out to one of the oyster islands to gather them instead.
    Far upriver, it was a great treat for the oyster-loving Dutch in the Fort Orange area

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