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The Big Oyster: History on the Half Shell

3.9  ·  Rating Details ·  2,695 Ratings  ·  324 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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Jason Koivu
Mar 06, 2014 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 03, 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.
Mar 04, 2017 Tobi rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
I really enjoyed this book. It is about the history of New York City as much as it is the history of the oyster.
Clark Hays
Oct 27, 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
Jan 11, 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
Jun 26, 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
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
Feb 18, 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
Dec 26, 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
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
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
Jul 28, 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!
Mar 24, 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.
Nov 21, 2013 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
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.
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".
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.
Dec 18, 2011 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.
May 13, 2017 Anne rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
This is an extraordinary tale of nature and calamity. The telling of the tale is a literary tour-de-force. The importance of the tale is imperative. I cannot fathom any person, who cares about the world around them, not being entertained and disturbed by this book. If you remain unsure that you want to invest the time, please just read the final chapter, "Enduring Shellfishness." I had tears in my eyes, the whole time, brought on my a non-fiction account of humans v. nature. So instructive of ou ...more
May 16, 2017 Yon rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
I could have used without all of the recipes, but it was a fascinating read about the NY history of oysters.
Joe Kearney
Nov 07, 2016 Joe Kearney rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Really good book, very entertaining as well as informative.
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
Brooke Everett
Jan 11, 2011 Brooke Everett rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: food
Do you ever walk around NYC and wonder what it was like there before it became a concrete jungle, or what it was like during that process of becoming what it is now? I always do. I also always love oysters, so viewing NYC's history through the lens of its relationship with oysters was fascinating.

Written in typical Kurlansky style, it's full of interesting tidbits presented in a way that's always so palatable and never dry. This is one that I feel I'll definitely use as a reference volume for ye
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
Mar 11, 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
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
Jun 09, 2011 Audrey rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: non-fic, new-york, foodie
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
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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
More about Mark Kurlansky...

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