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The Big Oyster: History on the Half Shell
Mark Kurlansky is King of the microhistory. Much like his previous books Cod and Salt, The Big Oyster goes way beyond the usual scope of food history, this time detailing the oyster's broader influence on the development of New York. A fascinating glimpse into both the city and the bivalve, this richly detailed gem is engrossing to the end.
Synopses & Reviews
Before New York City was the Big Apple, it could have been called the Big Oyster. Now award-winning author Mark Kurlansky tells the remarkable story of New York by following the trajectory of one of its most fascinating inhabitants — the oyster, whose influence on the great metropolis remains unparalleled.
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.
"Here's a chatty, free-wheeling history of New York City told from the humble perspective of the once copious, eagerly consumed, now decimated eastern oyster (Crassostrea virginicas). Research addict Kurlansky (Cod, etc.) starts from the earliest evidence of Lenape oyster middens, or beds, discovered by explorer Henry Hudson and others as evidence that natives enjoyed the shellfish as a delicacy, much as the Europeans did. When the Dutch arrived, the estuary of the lower Hudson, with its rich confluence of rivers, contained 350 square miles of oyster beds — 'fully half of the world's oysters.' The huge oyster stores contributed mightily to the mercantile wealth and natural renown of New Amsterdam, then inherited by the British, who were crazy about oysters; pickled oysters became an important trade with British West Indies slave plantations. While cheap, oysters appealed equally to the rich and poor, prompting famous establishments such as black-owned Downing's oyster cellar and Delmonico's (the enterprising author handily supplies historic recipes). The exhaustion of the city's oyster beds and pollution by sewage effectively eclipsed the consumption of local oysters by the 1920s, yet the lowly oyster still promotes the health of the waterways by its natural filtering system as well as indicating the purity of the water. Kurlansky's history digresses all over the place, and sparkles. Agent, Charlotte Sheedy. (Mar.)" Publishers Weekly (Starred Review) (Copyright Reed Business Information, Inc.)
"In his portrait of the once-famous oyster beds of New York Harbor, Kurlansky beautifully illustrates food's ability to connect us deeply to our particular place in the world, and shows how our nourishment is so vitally tied to the health of the natural world." Alice Waters
"Mark Kurlansky has done it again. The Big Oyster is a zesty love song to a bivalve and a city?intelligent, informative, and impossible to put down." Nathaniel Philbrick, National Book Award?winning author of In the Heart of the Sea
"The Big Oyster proves that it is possible for a skilled researcher to tell the history of New York — its wealth, excitement, greed, destructiveness and filth — through the history of a single creature." Elizabeth Royte, the New York Times Book Review
"Kurlansky also lives in New York, and the book seems suffused with his pleasure in exploring the city....People have used the material here before...but not as a means for enlivening the past through the lenses of indulgence, prosperity, marine bounty and night life." Los Angeles Times
"[A] sharply told history of a shellfish and its impact on the evolution of a great city....Kurlansky [mixes] hard science with glittering tidbits." San Francisco Chronicle
"Kurlansky's oyster-steeped approach turns out to be fun and accessible....Food enthusiasts and American history buffs will enjoy The Big Oyster most." Cleveland Plain Dealer
"It may surprise non-New Yorkers who think of the city's waterfront as the place where police fish out corpses, but the surrounding estuary provided a perfect habitat for shellfish that became the envy of the world." Booklist
"Kurlansky has produced a tasty mixture of history and analysis, larded with illustrations. The result will appeal to a wide range of appetites." Library Journal
"Kurlansky serves up the heady story with trenchant prose and a knack for curious insight....A compelling, highly readable treat, whether you partake of Ostreidae or not." Kirkus Reviews
About the Author
Mark Kurlansky is the New York Times bestselling and James A. Beard Award?winning author of 1968: The Year That Rocked the World, Salt: A World History, The Basque History of the World, Cod: A Biography of the Fish That Changed the World, The White Man in the Tree (a collection of short stories), and several other books. Boogaloo on Second Avenue is his first novel. He lives in New York City.
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