Jill's Reviews > The Big Oyster: History on the Half Shell

The Big Oyster by Mark Kurlansky
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Jan 31, 10

bookshelves: food-literature
Read in January, 2010

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 "contained fully half of the world's oysters" and the Dutch called Ellis Island and Liberty Island Little Oyster Island and Great Oyster Island because of all the "sprawling oyster beds that surrounded them". And apparently Manhattan and its environs were strewn with shell middens - at Pearl Street (which got its name from the middens), the Rockaway Peninsula (with a particularly large one in the Bayswater section of Far Rockaway) - now covered by railroad tracks, roads, docks, etc. But NYC was apparently more than just an Eden of oysters. It was Eden, period. Looking at Manhattan today, it's a little bizarre to read the excerpts from the letters of early Dutch travellers and settlers, who described Manhattan as a land with fine meadows, woodlands, and burgeoning wildlife both on land and in the water.

Unfortunately, the Big Oyster starts to flag about a third of the way into the book. Kurlansky appears to run out of material that will allow him to convincingly weave the story of the oyster together with the history of New York. Instead, he starts to cram the book with random factoids of oysters and NY (the two tenuously but not necessarily related): food markets in Manhattan in the 18th century sold oysters! Here are some recipes for oysters that people used to cook back in the day! During the civil war, they fed the troops with oysters! Some famous people back in the day used to love oysters and would eat them in NY! Kurlansky could just as easily have (and possibly more convincingly) written a book about Meat and New York City; food markets in Manhattan in the 18th century sold meat! During the civil war, they fed the troops with meat! Some famous pp back in the day used to love steak and would eat it in NY! ooh - there's also the Meatpacking District!

On the whole, I'd only recommend this book to those who are food lit devotees AND who love anything to do with Manhattan. Otherwise, you might want to save your time and shelf space for other worthier reads.
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