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The Big Oyster

3.90  ·  Rating Details  ·  2,434 Ratings  ·  302 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 ear
ebook, 336 pages
Published January 9th 2007 by Random House (first published 2005)
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(showing 1-30 of 3,000)
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Jason Koivu
Dec 22, 2015 Jason Koivu rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
The title of The Big Oyster: History on the Half Shell is a nod to The Big Apple and could very well be considered a solid stand-alone history of New York itself.

Mark Kurlansky's book titles do not get the reader's blood pumping:


You'd half expect to fall asleep before finishing the intro. But keep pushing on and you'll find a highly enjoyable read filled with interesting facts. Seriously, Kurlansky can make oysters and cod interesting. That's impressive!

The Big Oyster takes u
Aug 07, 2011 jersey9000 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: history
By the man who wrote Salt and Cod, both awesome books that use the aforementioned products to trace out the development of the world itself, comes another book along the same wonderful lines, but this one with a narrower focus: the oyster beds of New York City. I found this to be a fascinating read, and it gave me lots of insight into New York that I didn't even know I was lacking. I was born and Raised in New Jersey, and I was astounded by how little I knew about the history and evolution of NY ...more
Feb 18, 2009 Susan rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
Better premise than execution. An overview of New York history as seen through the oyster (or, better, the history of the oyster as seen through the lens of one city). Its great moments come from some fun historical oddities--e.g., the discovery of a new oyster bed is such major news that it makes the front page of the NYT. It sent me running to the Oyster Bar for a feed but otherwise didn't live up to my expectations.
Typical Kurlansky, in that he uses a very small topic to explore very big themes. I did not know that oysters used to be the food of the poor, that New York used to be a major oyster producer, and that the typical New York eatery was an oyster saloon.

New York harbor used to be filled with oysters, until they were killed off by pollution and overharvesting. The pollution, however, is from about a hundred years ago. As the Hudson becomes cleaner, the oysters are very slowly coming back. If they e
Clark Hays
Nov 10, 2012 Clark Hays rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Commerce, consumption and the end of an era

Awhile back, I read The Oyster: The Life and Lore of the Celebrated Bivalve to learn how oysters reproduce. Apparently, I developed a little crush on the bivalves -- not in the gastronomical sense; I’ve never eaten one -- because when I saw The Big Oyster by Mark Kurlanksy in an airport bookstore, I snatched it up.

It’s an entirely fascinating account of the evolution of New York from under-populated backwater wilderness to the bustling world capital of
Aug 05, 2012 Lisa rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: Cheryl
Mark Kurlansky likes to take a subject (like salt, cod, or even oysters) and after thoroughly researching, divulge all of the details in a historical background.
Kurlansky instructs the reader in all things relating to oysters in New York. He does touch on oysters grown in other locations, like the tributaries of the Chesapeake Bay where I grew up seeing crews of small wooden work boats using large tongs to dredge up oysters.

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I would have liked to have heard a little more about modern day oyst
Feb 19, 2009 Megan rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: did-not-finish
I just gave up on finishing this book. And I hate not finishing a book. I so wanted to keep reading. But I found myself looking around the subway for something more interesting to entertain me every time I picked it up. This is definitely not a page turner, like some of the other reviews suggest. Maybe if you're a history buff, but otherwise, no. It's interesting and there are tons of little tidbits about New York City and how this metropolis came to be what it is today (both due and not due to ...more
Jan 31, 2010 Jill rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: food-literature
I must say I had rather high expectations for this book. I rather like one of Kurlansky's earlier books - Cod - and how wrong could you go with a follow up about "the remarkable story of New York by following one its most fascinating inhabitants - the oyster"? Alas, to my chagrin, the blurb for the book was a tad misleading.

The Big Oyster starts out promisingly enough with its description of New York as a veritable Eden of oysters. According to the estimates of some biologists, NY Harbour "cont
Much of the charm of this sort of monograph lies in judicious wandering off the main topic and back... and in that regard I have to admit I found Kurlansky rather heavy-handed. He's grimly focused on a single storyline: New York City was built on top of shit-tons of oysters, but a classic tragedy of the commons has left the Big Oyster with nary a namesake to call its own. For light relief, he reprints numerous old oyster recipes -- and you know, there aren't THAT many fundamentally different way ...more
Dec 28, 2009 Samira rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: non-fiction
An inherent problem with being a historian reading popular history is that there is a bunch of exposition in most popular histories that I already know, and so I often find that popular American history can drag a bit. While that was sometimes true of The Big Oyster, it was very easy to skim those sections and Kulansky's writing style and use of language are so entertaining that I did not really mind. I had no idea there was so much to say about a food that has always struck me as salty snot on ...more
Liesl Gibson
I started this book completely fascinated, and really did learn a great deal about oysters and the history of New York. Lots of great trivia and fascinating bits that I'm glad to know and that help other bits fall into place in my mind. But about halfway through, the book just starts to discintegrate. This should either have been a much shorter and really great New Yorker article or it needed a good editor to give it some strong organization. It's all over the place and feels a bit like the auth ...more
May 10, 2013 Jim rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Yeah right. How is a book on the history of oysters going to be interesting? But it's not only interesting -- it's fascinating and wonderful.

Kurlansky is a great food writer (Salt and Cod are among his titles) but he has a brilliant sense of culture and NYC history as well. Oysters were a primary economy to New York; particularly in Five Points. Before the NY waters became so polluted (and remember that oysters are bottom-feeders) people came from all over the world -- notably Cas. Dickens -- ju
Not as encyclopedic as advertised, and definitely the literate foodie/gourmand has more to profit by than the historian, but an enjoyable read nevertheless that makes one pang for lost oyster cellars, the Washington Market, and all-night ferries. Kurlansky cites him a few times, but I suggest anyone really interested in knowing about the Black Staten Island oystering community, the oystering legacy of the South Shore of Strong Island, and the withering of New York Harbor fisheries of every strip ...more
Salvatore Leone
Dec 03, 2015 Salvatore Leone rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
My third book I think by this author. I really like his topics and how he writes and I'm looking forward to more of his books.
Nov 24, 2015 Martin rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
I enjoyed this book a lot. Some people may say that the focus is too narrow, but the author clearly lays out a case for why the oyster was so important to the development of New York. It was abundant and was the product of a great estuary which is why New Amsterdam was founded there in the first place. It enabled people to eat cheaply, which helped the population grow (it’s almost always been the most populous city in the U.S.) quickly. Free blacks were able to make a living harvesting, selling ...more
Lillian Carl
This is a quirky history of New York City, based on the premise that its nickname shouldn't be The Big Apple but The Big Oyster, since the bivalves were abundant and eaten in huge numbers (by rich and poor alike) for much of the city's history.

It's hard to imagine Manhattan as an island rich with streams, woods, and wild game, but so it once was. The local people discovered far back in antiquity that the conditions of the harbor were just right for oysters, and to this day builders still uncove
Jan C
I took this out of the library twice and feel like I gave it every chance. But I just was not enjoying it. So it won't get a third chance.

I will admit the possibility that I can no longer enjoy oysters (gout) may have turned me off from the beginning. Added to that I'm no great fan of New York. Okay to visit but I don't think I've even done that since the late '70s.

I did find it funny that at one point, in order to keep the oyster going in New York City, they had to import oysters from Maryland
Geoff Balme
Jul 27, 2015 Geoff Balme rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Another astonishing tale weaving history, environmentalism, and human folly around a bay area that became the great NYC. Probably too many people pooping in the same little place, no doubt, but a fascinating study around the destruction of foraged food (that supported the place to begin with) and the carelessness of human habit that ruined it for all ages, well, certainly for our lifetimes anyway.

In an era when we are still trying to deny our anthropogenic effect on the climate we can remind ou
Jan 19, 2016 Megan rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: nonfiction
I loved this 95% book because it was packed full of facts about the history of oysters in New York City. The 5% that I didn't enjoy was all of oyster recipes. But admittedly, cooking isn't a strong interest of mine.

Kurlansky's narrative nonfiction style is great! This is not just the story of oysters - arguably NYC's most famous food. It's about the environmental degradation and urbanization of NYC and the demise of this once ubiquitous bivalve. I am saddened by the deterioration of the Hudson
Mar 29, 2014 Linda rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
I'm not an oyster eater but we have a big ham & oyster dinner at our church every year and buying oysters is one of the big expenses. This was a very interesting book especially since I found out that if we'd had our annual dinner 150 years ago buying oysters would have been one of the cheapest expenses! This is basically a history of the NYC area as well and I'm always interested in that subject. I didn't realize that the oysters we eat in the U.S. are not the oysters that produce pearls or ...more
Nov 16, 2014 Lizzy rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
fascinating ecological and social history of the oyster as compared to the social history and growth of NYC. once again my main man Mark is brilliant. makes you think and look closely at how a species existence and relationship to humans can evolve alongside human social history
Jul 31, 2014 Shawna rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Awesome book. It is more than just about oysters! Lots of tidbits on food and general history of NYC and NJ. Definitely will be in my top 10 of 2014. Chapter headings and acknowledgement are also super word-nerdy funny. He thanks caffeine! Haha!
Jun 20, 2011 Clayton rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
A laser focused history of the New York City oyster. Once considered the greatest tasting oyster in the world, now gone thanks to pollution.

Kurlansky always manages to focus his story telling whether it's the history of salt, cod, or the oyster.
Dawn Rogers Kroll
This book was fantastic!!! Informative! I now know everything I ever wanted to know about the oyster ... and I don't even like to eat them! So very interesting from a historical perspective.
May 20, 2008 Anna rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
My dad loves oysters so I had to read it.

Amazing history. Who knew oysters were once so abundant and cheap!

Found out recently Ellis Island was first called "Oyster Island".
Feb 03, 2012 Spider rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
I finally swallowed the last of The Big Oyster. The enjoyment of eating bivalves ain't what it used to be... But the book was interesting.
Jun 04, 2014 Anne rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
I loved this book even though it might not have been Kurlansky's best. (Did I like Cod more?) I love the genre, commodities as history. It is trade which bring the world together, excites our adventure, and helps us grow. I had no sense of the wealth that grew for hundreds of years along the Hudson and East River. I'm looking forward on my next visit to Manhattan to brining the book along and seeking out sites he mentioned. The demise of oysters is another testament to the degradation of our env ...more
Mar 31, 2016 Meghan rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: food-non-fiction
I enjoyed this book and certainly learned a few things. It is a history of the New York oyster so at times it is a bit more of a history of New York with some oyster tidbits.

Of course, I learned a few things I wish I hadn't- like how a raw oyster is still 100% alive, heart brain etc. going at it, when you eat it.

I also didn't love (but wasn't surprised) to learn that New Yorkers have always dumped trash wherever they felt like and majorly polluted their water, but history tells no lies.

It was
Dec 16, 2012 John rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
How in the world can a book about humble oysters be this interesting? Because "The Big Oyster" is not really about oysters so much as the history of New York City, where oysters were a food staple for hundreds of years. They sold for as little as a penny apiece and were enjoyed by rich and poor alike until the sewage and industrial runoff of the rapidly-growing metropolis finally poisoned the oyster beds.

In telling this tale Kurlansky rolls out innumerable fascinating facts: New York was discove
May 23, 2008 Pilouetta rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Recommended to Pilouetta by: malone
why i love an oyster, kurlansky says it all:

the fact that oysters are about the only food eaten alive is part of what makes them a unique gastronomic experience, that and the sense that no other food brings us closer to the sea.

i appreciated the thorough research about the oyster a la new york, but given the overwhelming presence of the bivalve, kurlansky strayed at times, back and forth to europe, chicago and california. maybe there is just too much to say. i was glued to this book for the fact
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Mark Kurlansky (born 7 December 1948 in Hartford, Connecticut) is a highly-acclaimed American journalist and writer of general interest non-fiction. He is especially known for titles on eclectic topics, such as cod or salt.

Kurlansky attended Butler University, where he harbored an early interest in theatre and earned a BA in 1970. However, his interest faded and he began to work as a journalist in
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