Friday, June 5, 2015

An Oyster the size of Manhattan

Franklin Roosevelt at Antoines, 1937

I remember being a disappointed the first time I had Oysters Rockefeller.  I wasn't a big fan of spinach so the fancy dish was lost on me.  I associated it with New York, but apparently it was the invention of Antoine's Restaurant in New Orleans back in 1901 in honor of John D. Rockefeller.  The original green puree had no spinach, but rather was a mixture of parsley, watercress and other herbs, which lends itself better to seafood.

A few years back, Mark Kurlansky chose to tell the history of New York from the perspective of the oyster, which has an underlying midden of shells discarded by native Americans centuries ago.  On the surface, it seems like a great idea for a book, but Kathryn Hughes questions his thesis in this review.  In her mind, Kurlansky has taken the single commodity history genre one book too far in trying to tell a complex history through oyster anecdotes.  Maybe so, but at a pence on it is hard to resist.

I grew up in Northwest Florida, where just about every driveway was paved with oyster shells.  The oysters came from Apalachicola, the marshes of Louisiana and other Gulf water habitats.  It's a little smaller oyster than you get in New York, but tastier in my opinion.  You don't need to put anything on it except a little bit of Tobasco sauce to enjoy it.

Kurlansky tells us that when you eat an oyster raw you are eating a living being, replete with still-functioning brain, liver and sensory organs.  Maybe the oyster squeals when you bite into, but I think the bed of ice it has been sitting on numbs the pain.

Britons were long familiar with the shellfish, and I imagine the Dutch were too.  Cultivation of oyster beds off the coast of England dated back to Roman times. The church tried to contain the passion for shellfish by proscribing days when they were not to be eaten, but I don't imagine well-heeled Britons followed these church laws anymore than local fishermen did.

America's oldest oyster bar is in Boston.  Not to say there weren't others before Union Oyster House in Faneuil Hall, but they are lost in history.  What amazed me was how expensive oysters were in the Northeast.  A plate of oysters on the half shell would cost you as much as a bushel from Apalachicola or Cedar Key, Florida.  Of course, you have to shuck them yourself, which I was quite good at one point.

Pacific oysters took root in Japan and have now been introduced throughout the world, and used to regenerate oyster beds in England.  They have become the most popular oysters in the world.

Maybe it would have been more interesting to follow oysters around the world, as Kurlansky did Cod and Salt, rather than confining himself to one particular region.

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