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The Big Oyster: History on the Half Shell

3.88 of 5 stars 3.88  ·  rating details  ·  2,086 ratings  ·  271 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
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Published February 28th 2006 by Random House Audio (first published 2005)
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Matthew Lippart
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
Susan
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.
Zakariah Johnson
In the same way no amount of cocktail sauce can mask the vile aftertaste of a tainted oyster, the stubbornly hopeful fight waged by today's environmentalists to save what's left of the natural world cannot cover up the disaster of what has been lost. In The Big Oyster, Kurlansky documents how abundance was turned into sterility, slowly at first through over-exploitation and then suddenly through massive pollution. Thinking of oysters as a treat or luxury item is only a recent development. New Yo ...more
Hester
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
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Clark Hays
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
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Lisa
Aug 05, 2012 Lisa rated it 3 of 5 stars  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: Cheryl
3.5
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
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Megan
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
Jill
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
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Joyce
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
Samira
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
Jim
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
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Seán
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
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
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Linda
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
Lizzy
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
Shawna
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!
Clayton
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.
Anna
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".
Spider
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.
Anne Oneill
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
John
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
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Pilouetta
May 23, 2008 Pilouetta rated it 3 of 5 stars  ·  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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Carin
I finally finished this book. It took way too long, I had to force myself to not give up. I love nonfiction books filled with historical, random facts, and after having lived in New York I am even more of a lover of New York City history than an average reader. I thought this book would have the perfect blend of both. Alas, I should have remembered: while I did love Mr. Kurlansky's Cod, I did not finish and eventually gave away Salt, after getting about 1/3 of the way through. The Big Oyster sho ...more
Audrey
Kurlansky examines the history of New York City through the lens of the oyster. That's right, New York used to have oysters - and delicious oysters at that! There's a bit of biology, but mostly it's the economics and the social history of what was a staple food here for both the rich and the poor. You wouldn't think developments in oystering and oyster-selling would be so rich, but it's amazing how the oyster interacts with and shapes so many facets of New York. Environmentally, it's a sad and p ...more
Lisa
I'm a big Kurlansky fan. He's cornered the market on writing books about modest, single subjects you never imagined you'd give a hoot about (salt, specific types of fish, ugly bivalves...I'm still waiting for a book about toilet paper.) The man made me care deeply about sodium chloride. And I grew up in a region where crab came out of a can and was spelled with a "k" and oysters were a type of mushroom. So I really liked the PROMISE of this book: an obsessive and exhaustive look at my new favori ...more
Devin Bruce
I decided to try this because I read and liked Kurlansky's Salt, and while The Big Oyster was also good, it suffered a little in comparison.

I found reading about the ecological aspect of oysters, and their importance to New Yorkers throughout the ages, very interesting, and I also appreciated getting the story of the changing political and municipal landscape through the years. (The historical recipes are also a great historical curiosity, and some even make me want to try a couple of them.) But
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Ross
There might not be enough material to write an entire book around the oyster and New York City. At least that's how it feels when Kurlansky goes off on tangents about steamboats or slums or any number of things. And the chapter titles are cutesy and overdrawn: e.g., The Crassostreasness if New Yorkers; Enduring Shellfishness.

But underneath all that are some interesting facts about oyster shells, oyster farming, the oyster trade, and the popularity of oysters. It is hard to believe that oysters
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Patty
This book had the elements that I like in Kurlansky's writings - good writing and fascinating facts. Many years ago, I read Cod and was intrigued by the links that the cod made between countries and eras of history. I had no idea that one fish could be so important. It is this kind of history that makes me want to read Kurlansky's non-fiction.

I knew more about oysters when I started this book than I had known about cod, but I had no idea of the links between New York City and the oyster. I had n
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1847
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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More about Mark Kurlansky...
Salt: A World History Cod: A Biography of the Fish that Changed the World The Basque History of the World: The Story of a Nation The Food of a Younger Land: The WPA's Portrait of Food in Pre-World War II America 1968: The Year That Rocked the World

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