Shelling out the city’s past

By Laura Silver

Like a well-cultured pearl, Mark Kurlansky has spent a good amount of time immersed in the sought-after shellfish. The noted food author’s latest hardcover, “The Big Oyster: History on the Half Shell” is a paean to the mollusk, which up until now has been an oft-overlooked ingredient in New York City history. Its prominence in Gotham dates as far back as 1609, when Henry Hudson was greeted by oyster-proffering members of the Lenni Lenape tribe.

Kurlansky, 57, traipsed around Lower Manhattan, the far reaches of Staten Island and immersed himself in dozens of recipe books in search of the bivalve’s storied history on the shores of the Hudson and East River. The amicable, grey-haired writer also spent a considerable amount of time sampling some of the city’s best oysters.

“There’s a taste of the sea that’s unlike any other food,” he said over a recent lunch at Docks Oyster Bar and Seafood Grill on 90th Street and Broadway, a stone’s throw from his Upper West Side home and office. Pollution forced oyster beds within city limits to close by 1930, but the Great South Bay, a body of water between the south shore of Long Island and Fire Island, still produces edible gems. Kurlansky prefers fruits de mer from farther north and revels in the wide selection at Aquagrill, but was still pleased to know the ones in front of him weren’t being called Bluepoints (a more specific and no longer fertile bed off the coast of Rockaway). He puts away a dozen with a glass of white wine and no toppings. It’s a lot better than “Cod” or “Salt,” he said, referencing his New York Times’ bestsellers in which he explored the life and times of the fish and the seasoning.

Kurlansky is so hooked on these shellfish, he’s even considered opening an oyster bar. He recounts how he accidentally deleted an email from a downtown restauranteur who wanted to know if the mollusk biographer might be interested in opening up shop together.

“I really wanted to talk to him about recreating an oyster cellar,” said Kurlansky. “Now he thinks, ‘stuck-up writer, didn’t want to talk to me.’ (That’s not the case. Kurlansky hopes that the oyster entrepreneur will contact him again so they can break bread and slurp shells together.)

Still, as much as Kurlansky is drawn to the fruit of sea, words come first. Upon arriving at the restaurant he asked to borrow a pen to jot down some thoughts that occurred to him on the way over. With the oyster book under his belt (quite literally), he’s now at work on a collection of short stories that examine people’s relationships to different foods. The vignettes take place in foodie destinations like Manhattan, Paris, Seattle and Yankee Stadium. Yes, Yankee Stadium.

As readers of “The Big Oyster” learn, until the early 20th century, rooting for the home team was synonymous with eating oysters — fried, stewed, roasted, raw or in stew — not today’s ballpark wiener. And before hot dogs took hold as New York’s sidewalk staple, oyster carts and oyster cellars lined the streets of Lower Manhattan. People of all walks of life ate from carts, but upper class gentlemen could also enjoy oysters in the privacy of dimly lit dens where “professional” women and generous helpings of alcohol were a constant side dish.

The oysters that once dominated this town were harvested from underwater beds from Staten Island to Raritan, New Jersey and up the East River to the Bronx’s City Island. “Oysters were one of the few foods I’ve come across that didn’t have a soci-economic status,” said Kurlansky, arguing that the culture surrounding them never really left the city and laid the groundwork for a recent renaissance, which has made them significantly more popular today than they were 15 years ago.

The native bivalve offers a natural filtration system that allows it to process harbor water in two or three days. Oysters grown in New York City today are inedible because of toxins. “The PCBs will be there until somebody takes them out,” laments Kurlansky. “By court order, General Electric is supposed to clean them up, but there’s a lot of hemming and hawing on how to go about it. We have to stay on it.” He recommends contacting elected officials and getting involved with groups like the River Project that are looking for volunteers to plant oyster reefs.

“This city happens to have been built on the site of a natural wonder … we should be living with it.”

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