For centuries New York was famous for its oysters, which until the early 1900s played such a dominant a role in the city’s economy, gastronomy, and ecology that the abundant bivalves were Gotham’s most celebrated export, a staple food for the wealthy, the poor, and tourists alike, and the primary natural defense against pollution for the city’s congested waterways.
Filled with cultural, historical, and culinary insight–along with historic recipes, maps, drawings, and photos–this dynamic narrative sweeps readers from the island hunting ground of the Lenape Indians to the death of the oyster beds and the rise of America’s environmentalist movement, from the oyster cellars of the rough-and-tumble Five Points slums to Manhattan’s Gilded Age dining chambers.
Kurlansky brings characters vividly to life while recounting dramatic incidents that changed the course of New York history. Here are the stories behind Peter Stuyvesant’s peg leg and Robert Fulton’s “Folly”; the oyster merchant and pioneering African American leader Thomas Downing; the birth of the business lunch at Delmonico’s; early feminist Fanny Fern, one of the highest-paid newspaper writers in the city; even “Diamond” Jim Brady, who we discover was not the gourmand of popular legend.
With The Big Oyster, Mark Kurlansky serves up history at its most engrossing, entertaining, and delicious.
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About the Author
Hometown:New York, NY
Date of Birth:December 7, 1948
Place of Birth:Hartford, CT
Education:Butler University, B.A. in Theater, 1970
Read an Excerpt
A Molluscular Life
Obviously, if you don’t love life, you can’t enjoy an oyster.
—Eleanor Clark, The Oysters of Locmariaquer, 1959
In 1609, when Henry Hudson, a British explorer employed by the Dutch, sailed into New York Harbor on his eighty-five-foot ship, Halve Maen, with a half-British, half-Dutch crew of sixteen, he found the same thing Mackay would two and a half centuries later—a local population with the habit of feasting on excellent New York Harbor oysters.
Hudson was a seventeenth-century man in search of a fifteenth-century dream. His employer, Holland, would soon be in its golden age, offering the world Rembrandt, the microscope, and the stock exchange, but not, as Hudson and his sponsors had hoped, a river through North America leading to China.
A water route to Chinese trade replacing the long, arduous Silk Road was a great dream of the Renaissance. The only alternative ever found was in 1499 when Vasco da Gama sailed from Portugal and went around Africa to the Indian Ocean. All of the westward voyages of exploration had ended in failure, with endless landmasses standing in the way between Europe and China. Cabot was stopped by Canada in the north, Verrazano was stopped by the United States farther south, Columbus by Central America in the middle, and Magellan showed that it was a hopelessly long way around South America to the south. Only one idea still held any possibility and that was a passage through arctic waters.
And so Hudson was essentially an arctic explorer. In fact, he was a failed arctic explorer. On his first voyage for the British he sailed straight north, attempting to travel beyond the ice and down the other side of the globe. The plan was geographically astute but meteorologically absurd and he was stopped by ice. At the point he could go no farther, his seventy-foot wooden vessel was only six hundred miles short of Robert E. Peary’s 1909 achievement, reaching the North Pole. His second voyage, heading northeast over Russia, was also stopped by ice. At this point his British sponsor, the Muscovy Company, dropped him.
A new idea came along. In the early seventeenth century, Captain John Smith, the ruggedly handsome legendary adventurer famous for his conquests both military and sexual, was the great promoter of European settlement in North America. He charted the coastline, reported on his findings, and pitched North America to any Englishman who would listen. He was to play a role in the promoting of Britain’s two leading North American colonies, Virginia and Massachusetts. Hudson knew Smith and they corresponded in 1608, by which time four-fifths of Smith’s 1607 Virginia settlers had already died. There was a growing belief that North America was uninhabitable in the winter. But Smith’s contagious enthusiasm never faltered. Not only did he believe in North American settlement—this entire debate taking place as if no one was already living there—but his maps and letters to Hudson promoted an alternative to the theory that a water route to China could be found north of Canada—the so-called Northwest Passage. Smith’s theory was that somewhere north of Virginia a major river connected the Atlantic to the Sea of Cathay.
This is a case of people hearing only what they want to hear. Smith’s Chinese sea was presumably the Pacific Ocean, but rivers are not known to flow from one sea to another. Smith’s theory was based on statements from northern tribes who trapped for fur. They talked of an ocean that could be reached from a river. They probably said nothing about Cathay, China, which was an obsession of Europeans, not North Americans. It seems likely that the North Americans were talking about how they could travel up the Hudson and follow the Mohawk tributary and with a short land portage—for a canoe—arrive at the Great Lakes. Standing on the shore of Lake Erie, one can have the impression of being on the coast of a vast sea. Furthermore, the currents of the Hudson are so multidirectional, the salty ocean water travels so far inland, that according to Indian legend, the first inhabitants came to the Hudson in search of a river that ran two ways, as though it flowed into seas at both ends. Whether such early Indian explorers existed, the Europeans came looking for exactly that.
Hudson, the out-of-work explorer, had something to sell: a possible new passage to China. The Muscovy Company had listened and voted against the project. But Britain’s new and fast-growing competitor, Holland, was interested. The Vernenigde Oostindische Compagnie, or VOC, known in English as the Dutch East India Company, hired him. The Dutch were not interested in new theories from John Smith or Henry Hudson. They hired Hudson to search for the northeastern passage, a route through the ice floes north of Russia. Hudson had no faith in this northeastern theory, but the VOC gave him a commission with a new ship, and so he took it and sailed north until well out of the view of Dutchmen. Then he picked up a westerly gale and crossed the Atlantic, thousands of miles in the opposite direction of his orders, and reached the North American coast off Newfoundland.
More than a century after John Cabot’s voyage, this was a well-known route. Hudson then followed the coastline south to Cape Hatteras and the mouth of the Chesapeake within miles of his friend Smith at Jamestown but, sailing in a Dutch vessel, did not visit the British settlement. Perhaps he needed to locate Smith’s Jamestown to find his bearing on Smith’s maps. Then he began exploring the coastline for a river to China.
In this search he became the first European to enter Delaware Bay. But seeing the shallow waters, shoals, and bars at the mouth of the Delaware, Hudson felt certain that this was not a river great enough to cut through North America to China. He continued on, viewing the forest lands of an unknown continent off the port side, seemingly uninhabited, with only an occasional bird chirp for counterpoint to the rolling surf on sandy beaches and the creaks in the Half Moon’s rigging.
Then, rounding a flat, sandy, narrow peninsula, today accurately labeled Sandy Hook, Hudson and his men, almost as if falling through a keyhole, found themselves in another world. The wide expanse of water, one hundred square miles, lay flat, sheltered by the bluffs of Staten Island and the rolling hills of Brooklyn. Sandy Hook on the port and the shoals of Rockaway Peninsula on the starboard, an ideal barrier furnished with several channels, protected the opening. When they looked into the water, they could see large fish following them.
This was the place. From all directions they saw rivers pouring into the bay. If there were a chasm in the heart of North America opening up a waterway all the way to China, this is what it would look like.
Hudson identified three “great rivers.” They were probably Raritan Bay, which separates New Jersey and Staten Island, the opening to the Upper Harbor, and the Rockaway Inlet on the Brooklyn–Queens shore of Long Island. He had not yet sailed through the narrow opening between Staten Island and Brooklyn—not yet seen the Upper Bay, the Hudson River, the Harlem River, and the East River that connects with Long Island Sound. He had not yet seen the lush, green, rocky island of ponds and streams in the middle of the estuary.
Hudson sent a landing party ashore on Staten Island. It was late summer and the plum trees and grapevines were bearing fruit. Immediately upon landing, as though Hudson’s crew had been expected, as though invited, people dressed in animal skins appeared to welcome them. These people in animal skins saw that the leader of the people who arrived in the floating house wore a red coat that sparkled with gold lace.
In what would become a New York tradition, commerce instantly began. The Europeans in red had tools, while the skin-clad Americans offered hemp, beans, and a local delicacy—oysters. The Europeans thought they were getting much better value than they were giving, but the Americans may have thought the same thing.
Hudson and his men had no idea with whom they were trading. They reported that the people in skins were friendly and polite but not to be trusted. These people the Europeans distrusted called their land Lenapehoking, the land of the Lenape. The Lenape thought they knew their visitors. They were a people they called in their language shouwunnock, which meant “Salty People.” The grandparents of the Lenape who saw Hudson may have seen an earlier Salty Person, the Italian, Giovanni da Verrazano, sailing the coast with his crew for Francis I, king of France, in 1524. Verrazano had chosen to moor his ship off Staten Island, farther up than Hudson, in the narrow opening that bears his name and where Staten Island is now connected to Brooklyn by a bridge. Verrazano could see the second interior bay with its wide rivers and well-placed island and described the bay as “a pleasant lake.” He named it Santa Margarita after the sister of his patron, Francis. “We passed up with our boat only into the said river, and saw the country very well peopled. The people are almost like unto the others, and clad with feathers of fowls of divers colors. They came toward us very cheerfully, making great shouts of admiration, showing us where we might come to land most safely with our boat.”
But soon shifting winds forced the Europeans, with great reluctance, to return to their ship and sail on. This was probably the first sighting of Salty People by the inhabitants of the harbor, although their grandparents may also have seen Ésteban Gomez, a Portuguese explorer who passed this way. An early Portuguese map suggests that Europeans, probably either Portuguese or Basque fishermen, may have sailed to this place at the time of Columbus. Some of those who now met Hudson and his crew may have heard of or even had contact with the Frenchman Samuel de Champlain, who only a few months earlier had traveled south from what is now Canada to the lake that is named after him. Jamestown, near the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay, was just south of the Lenapes’ Delaware Bay and was already two years old when Hudson arrived in New York. By the time Hudson arrived, the Lenapes knew Salty People when they saw them. They had been coming for a long time with very little consequence.
This group stayed longer than the others. They explored the upper harbor, then chose the river west of the island and sailed up what is now called the Hudson as far as what is now Albany. From there, it must have been clear that this narrowing river was not leading to China and they left.
In the Lenape language, lenape translates as “the common man.” Sometimes they called themselves Lenni Lenape, which means “we, the people.” Europeans have labeled the language and the people Delaware. They were a loose confederation of populations living between the South River, the Delaware, and the North River, the Hudson. Until the twentieth century, it was believed that between eight and twelve thousand such people lived in what is today Delaware, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, New York, and Connecticut when Hudson arrived. But these low estimates were based on the count in the year 1700, which was three thousand. Starting in 1633, the Lenape had already been through at least fourteen epidemics of such European diseases as smallpox, malaria, and measles. More recently, archaeologists have concluded that as many as fifteen thousand lived in what is today New York City and possibly as many as fifty thousand others lived in the Lenape region.
Lenape villages were busy little clusters of longhouses made of bark and grass. They lived on fishing and hunting, and gathering nuts, fruit, and shellfish. They made clothes of cured deer and elk skins. In spring, coastal Lenapes set up large fishing camps. They trapped, netted, and speared shad and other river fish. They had monogamous marriages, but sexual relations between the unmarried were acceptable until Europeans introduced venereal diseases. The dead were greatly mourned. Sometimes mourners would blacken their faces for an entire year. The dead, it was believed, traveled along a star path. Each star in the Milky Way was believed to be a footprint.
The Lenape believed that their history began when Kishelemukong, the creator, brought a giant turtle up from the deep ocean. The back of the turtle grew into a vast island, North America. They believed they had come to the mid-Atlantic from farther west and archaeologists agree, saying they arrived at the Atlantic three thousand years ago.
There were three major groups of Lenape and numerous subdivisions within those. They had few unifying institutions except language, and even that broke down into dialects. One of the groups, the Munsey, which means “mountaineers,” controlled the mountains near the headwaters of the Delaware. They also maintained hunting grounds in what is now the New York City area. It is the Munsey language that gave Manhattan and many other New York places their names. It is uncertain from which Munsey word the name Manhattan is derived. One theory is that it comes from the word manahactanienk, which means “place of inebriation,” but another is that it comes from manahatouh, meaning “a place where wood is available for making bows and arrows.” The even more prosaic possibility that is most often cited is that it comes from menatay, which simply means “island.”
Lenape and Lenni Lenape are Munsey words. Many of the subgroups have become place names. On Long Island, the Canarsee, the Rockaways, and the Massapequas all spoke Munsey. The Raritans, Tappans, and Hackensacks, all of whom spoke Unami, a different language in the same family as Munsey, controlled different parts of Staten Island, northern Manhattan, the Bronx, and parts of New Jersey. All of these people and other locals such as the Wieckquaesgecks of Westchester, ate oysters, and some may have traveled some distance for them. The Lenape who gave Hudson his first taste of New York oysters were from what is now Yonkers.
We know that the Lenape ate copious quantities of oysters because oyster shells last a very long time and they left behind tremendous piles of them. These piles, containing thousands of shells, have been found throughout the New York City area. Archaeologists call them shell middens. The most common marker of a pre-European settlement anywhere in the area of the mouth of the Hudson are these piles of oyster shells, sometimes as much as four feet deep, sometimes buried in the ground, sometimes piled high. The early-seventeenth-century Dutch were the first to note the shell middens. One such mountain of oyster shells gave Pearl Street, originally on the waterfront in lower Manhattan, its name. Contrary to popular belief, the street was not actually paved with oyster shells until many years after it was named for a midden. The Dutch found another midden at what is now the intersection of Canal Street and the Bowery and called it Kalch-Hook, Shell-Point.