New York's History on the Half Shell

New York's History on the Half Shell
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Why you should care

Because bivalves matter more than your average appetizer.

Join us at OZY Fest on July 22 in New York City’s Central Park to rock, think and laugh courtesy of Jason Derulo, Malcolm Gladwell, Samantha Bee and many others. Celebrity chef Eddie Huang will be our CFO (chief food officer), dishing up a delicious spread themed around the history of New York’s cuisine. Here’s an appetizer:

Quick, what’s the original quintessential New York food? Not the bagel or even the apple (big or otherwise). For the waves of immigrants coming to New York City in the 19th century, the streets were metaphorically paved with gold, but some streets — like Pearl Street, where the clue is in the name — were literally paved with oyster shells.

The oyster today has a rarefied glow about it, a decadence — if you want to broadcast a character’s wealth in a movie, have him slurp a plate of bivalves on the half shell. But it wasn’t always like that. Oysters were New York’s calling card to the world, and while the rich partook with gusto, so too did the poor. Oysters from New York Harbor — “as large as cheese plates,” Charles Dickens marveled when he visited in 1842 — were famous around the world, and oyster cellars, with red lit globes hung outside their doors, were as ubiquitous as pizza parlors.

Even in the highest-end oyster bars, though, there were those who broke through the social hierarchy.

“Oysters used to be extremely abundant,” explains food and travel writer Jennifer Brizzi, abundant enough for the (then much smaller) population of New York City to consume them daily. “As the population grew and grew, and then pollution decimated the supply around the city, oyster-lovers had to go further for their oysters, to Long Island, for example,” Brizzi says. “There were just way fewer oysters per person, making them go from cheap to pricey and from food for the masses to food for the moneyed.”

Even in the highest-end oyster bars, though, there were those who broke through the social hierarchy. Thomas Downing, born a free man to formerly enslaved parents in Virginia in 1791, leveraged life as an oysterman — a profession that, in New York, was open to and even dominated by African-Americans — into his own restaurant, Downing’s Oyster House. The restaurant opened in 1825, two years before the last Black slaves in the state of New York were freed, and was a lush and luxurious place frequented by the city’s rich and famous. Downing’s establishment, writes Cindy R. Lobel in Urban Appetites, “offered him access — if not entry — to the highest political and social circles in the city.”

Downing sold his oysters fresh, fried, pickled, roasted and in pies, and exported his famous oysters to the crowned heads of Europe — all while using his cellars as a stop on the Underground Railroad, helping escaped slaves reach safety in Canada. He was also a committed activist, fighting to expand suffrage for Black people in New York City — and while he succeeded, he didn’t live to see it. Downing passed the oyster house on to his son, and when he died, the city closed the chamber of commerce out of respect. Downing wasn’t alone: In Brooklyn, oyster bar Johnny Joe’s, run by a former slave, was a hangout for luminaries beginning in 1830.

Even while bivalves were being eaten on every street corner, other New York eateries advanced the oyster’s decadent, rarefied vibe, with dishes like oysters Rockefeller. The presentation of oysters on the half shell wasn’t invented at fine-dining legend Delmonico’s — rather, it was pioneered in New Orleans, and even there it was a variation on the classic French presentation of escargot — but the two remain inextricably linked. Meanwhile, the poor could get oysters at harborside stalls that served stew, dropping the shells on the street (before it was determined that throwing them back into oyster beds is best for the species) and slurping down the unusually nutritious critters with only bread as an accompaniment.

There were clues early on that New York’s oyster lust was unsustainable. In 1658, before the Dutch had even surrendered the territory to the British, local councils were limiting oyster harvests. The oysters, which had also been eaten by the Lenape people, were extraordinary: Archaeological evidence suggests many were as big as a foot across, and travelers describing them in the 18th century said it took multiple mouthfuls to consume one. But everything ends, even the most delicious shell game.

By 1909, over just a few decades, the city’s oyster output had halved, and one by one the city closed down its shellfish beds due to pollution and sewage contamination. The last oyster bed closed in 1927. But the 5-year-old Billion Oyster Project is attempting to restore the polluted harbor, and with it some semblance of New York’s oyster industry. Reseeding the harbor with oysters, which grow well in empty shells of their fallen brethren, just might restore the harbor habitat to itself and New York to its former oyster glory.

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