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The Big Oyster by Kurlansky Mark

  • Author: Kurlansky Mark
  • Book title: The Big Oyster
  • Category: Cookbooks, Food & Wine
  • Publisher: Jonathan Cape; Airport / Ireland / Export ed edition (2006)
  • ISBN: 0224078232
  • ISBN13: 978-0224078238
  • Rating: 4.7
  • Votes: 923
  • Other formats: lit docx doc azw
7 Reviews
In Mark Kurlansky's wonderful book, The Big Oyster: History on the Half Shell we learn about the bivalve bounty that once existed off the shores of Manhattan. Kurlansnky writes, "By 1880, New York was the undisputed capital of history's greatest oyster boom in its golden age, which lasted until at least 1910. The oyster beds of the New York area were producing 700 million oysters a year."

The first blow to oyster production was sewage. "The reality is that millions of people produce far too much sewage to co-exist with millions of oysters...A million times worse than pollution happened. The silt and sludge alone would have been enough to kill oysters, which would sink in it and suffocate. But the industrial wastes consisted of heavy metals, including seven thousand pounds of zinc, copper, lead chromium, and nickel that entered the city sewer system every day...Between the 1940's and the 1970's, General Electric dumped hundreds of thousand of pounds of polycholorinated biphenyls, PCBs, into the Hudson..Concentrations of six heavy metals were found in the 1980's in the central muddy portion of the bay (Raritan). They had entered the water from the many factories built on the Raritan Rover during World War II. With the sentiment "anything for the war effort," these industries were allowed to freely dump into the river, and the practice continued after the war. In 1978, Raritan Bay was found to have the highest concentration of hydrocarbons. Fish in the bay were found to be laced with PCBs. The fish were often misshapen by a pollution-caused disease known as "fin-erosion disease." The Big Oyster.

World War II was the most destructive war in the history of mankind claiming the lives of around 60 to 70 million casualties worldwide; another casualty was the oyster beds of New York. America's Military Industrial Complex may have knocked off Hitler and Tojo, liberated the Nazi and Japanese concentration camps, but it also has the death of billions of oysters on its hands as well. In order to construct Freedom's Forge (Freedom's Forge: How American Business Produced Victory in World War II)and win World War II the tasty bivalves of New York had to walk the plank.

This book is filled with tasty insight into the history of oysters around the New York area and much more. I loved it.

If you liked The Big Oyster you will also enjoy America Invades: How We've Invaded or been Militarily Involved with almost Every Country on Earth by Kelly / Laycock and Italy Invades
Mark Kurlansky blends two great histories: New York City and NYC's Oysters. In addition to in-depth research on both the city and oysters, maps show the New York City area, verbatim diaries, journal writings, book excerpts, and authentic oyster advertisements of the day. Even recipes for "oyster pie" and oyster soup and numerous other oyster dishes from those times are included. You will learn the evolutionary strengths and the anatomy of oysters.

This Kurlansky's style brings the city residents, the eaters of oysters, workers who gathered them, and the restaurants and food stands that sold them. The reader can go back in the past and relive New York back in the days when the Dutch controlled it. The laws, taverns, population, and rural aspect of then-Manhattan come to life. And you learn than oysters are not only durable but pretty intelligent, considering that they are, well, bivalves.

With the popularity of oysters and the harvesting came the necessary rules of who and when they could be harvested, and territorial areas were legally assigned by the local governments then. New York and New Jersey had to co-operate on who could harvest where as certain areas were disputable.

*The Bronx borough was named after a Swedish-born sea captain named Bronck.
*The Battle of Brooklyn was the largest land battle of the Revolutionary War.
*In 1773 there were 396 Taverns in Manhattan
*In 1750 NYC was the leading American city for oyster and alcohol consumption.
*Gangs such as the "Swamp Angels, Dead Rabbits, and Daybreak Boys" fought lethal and violent battles against one another, and gang fights could involve 1,000 gang members in the fights.
*The 1863 anti-draft riot involved 50-70,000 rioters with killings, torture, gangs, and burning.
*Oysters can live without water for days, and even longer if sprinkled with oatmeal for food.
*The word "cookies" comes from the Dutch word "koeckjes"

As for lifestyle, Manhattan was not as austere as the Puritan areas to the north, thanks to the first controllers, the Dutch. Captain Kidd lived in Manhattan was a celebrity there. He went up to Boston where he was arrested, sent to England, and hanged. "Boston, was never New York."

Not only were oysters ubiquitous in the vast waterways of the entire New York region, but they were very affordable, provided protein and food for the poor. All classes frequently ate the oysters.

The book ends at present day, and many of the oyster beds (and numerous fish species) have succumbed to the toxic chemicals and pollutants. Environmental groups in the latter 20th Century did take action against the most blatent offending companies polluting and even cited some of the oldest environmental laws on the book dating to the 17 and 1800s.

A quick, upbeat, writing style supplanted with lots of research and stats. This informative, well written and enjoyable read by Mark Kulansky motivates me to read his other works.
As an ex-pat native New Yorker and reader of American History, I thought that I had a pretty good knowledge of New York City history. I knew that there had been oyster beds in areas around the City (there are many locations with Oyster in their names) and had read about oystering off Staten Island around the beginning of the last century, but I had no idea of how central to New York City's economy oysters were. As usual with Kurlansky I learned a lot. I am distressed with some of the erroneous information, most importantly the reference to George Washington's "son", Phillip, about whom I can find no historical reference, and would like to know where he found that false fact. However, there was much information in the book which coincided or correlated with information that I already knew so I do not doubt the underlying truth of his theme.

I can't wait to read "Cod".
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