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The Big Oyster: History on the Half Shell

3.93  ·  Rating details ·  3,566 ratings  ·  399 reviews

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.

For centuries New York was famous for this particular shellfish, which until the early 1900s played such a dominant a role in the city’s life that the abundant bivalves were Gotham’s most celebrated export, a staple
Paperback, 307 pages
Published January 9th 2007 by Random House Trade (first published January 1st 2005)
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Average rating 3.93  · 
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 ·  3,566 ratings  ·  399 reviews

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Jason Koivu
Mar 06, 2014 rated it really liked it
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
Dec 28, 2019 rated it it was amazing
The Big Oyster: A Molluscular History of New York [2006] –

“The history of New York oysters is a history of New York itself – its wealth, its strength, its excitement, its greed, its thoughtlessness, its destructiveness, its blindness and – as any New Yorker will tell you – its filth. This is the history of the trashing of New York, the killing of its great estuary” [2006: xvi], so begins this marvellous non-fiction book by Mark Kurlansky, who is also the author of such popular books as Cod
Dave & Lindsay Gurak
History of Oysters in NYC

Grist detail around how prominent oysters have been in the history of New York City. Lots of interesting stories and facts that often slip through the cracks in traditional story telling. Highly recommend!
Aug 03, 2011 rated it really liked it
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 ...more
Feb 18, 2009 rated it it was ok
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.
Jan 11, 2010 rated it it was ok
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
Ill D
Nov 26, 2018 rated it really liked it
Recommends it for: Gentlemen and Scholars
Shelves: reviewed
The Big Oyster traces the intertwined history of oysters and the city of New York. From the earliest Dutch colonial settlements all the way to to the end of the 19th (20th+ including the epilogue) century, these bivalve’d delicacies have filled bellies, made fortunes, and according to Kurlansky, built the world’s most central entrepot.

Generally, well written and equally well researched a highly enjoyable book that delicately pleases eyes and brain alike is the result. However, not all is good
Liesl Gibson
Dec 31, 2009 rated it liked it
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 ...more
Mar 04, 2017 rated it really liked it
I really enjoyed this book. It is about the history of New York City as much as it is the history of the oyster.
Heather Page
Nov 27, 2017 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Love love love this book. Interesting information about oysters in general and awesome history of NYC in relation to oysters. I work downtown Manhattan, so the history is this book was great for me. Highly recommend this book!!!
Ameya Warde
This author wrote "Salt" which is the book that got me hooked on micro-histories, which, along with loving NYC, is why I picked up this book, despite being a vegetarian who has never (TG) eaten any kind of seafood of any sort and is very happy about it. I did tune out when he read off recipes or particularly gruesome bits (I CAN'T BELIEVE THAT RAW OYSTERS ARE ALIVE AND PEOPLE ARE EATING LIVING ANIMALS, OMG. D: ), but I thought it was a really interesting book, and I enjoyed seeing the history of ...more
Mark Fallon
May 18, 2019 rated it it was amazing
The history of New York as you've never read it before. Doubles a tale of caution as we continue to treat our natural world as an infinite resource.
Jul 02, 2017 rated it really liked it
I'm a big fan of Kurlansky's work, and this book did not disappoint. Being a Native New Yorker, the destruction of the New York estuaries is a sad story, but hopefully one that is not permanent. I will warn potential readers that consuming oysters may never be the same experience for you again after reading this book.
Sean Kelley
Sep 26, 2019 rated it liked it
This sort of felt like they didn't have enough content. There were long digressions about things that were tangentially related to oysters in NY, but also digressions off those digressions. I think I would've liked something more focused, and also was maybe a little more focused on the ecological story of the destruction of NYC's oyster population.
Teresa McTigue
I was disappointed in this book, despite loving his previous writing. It's more of a rapid fire history of New York City with a little bit of oyster lore throw in here and there. Large sections have no relation to oysters, oystering, or the oyster industry at all. It was even boring in parts, which lead to me taking so long to read it.
Clark Hays
Oct 27, 2012 rated it really liked it
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
Feb 21, 2010 added it
Shelves: librarybook
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 ...more
Jun 26, 2012 rated it liked it
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
May 10, 2011 rated it really liked it
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
Feb 18, 2009 rated it it was ok
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 rated it really liked it
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
May 10, 2013 rated it it was amazing
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 --
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 ...more
Nov 21, 2013 rated it it was amazing
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 28, 2014 rated it it was amazing
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 rated it really liked it
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.
May 20, 2008 rated it it was amazing
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".
Dec 18, 2011 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.
Salvatore Leone
Dec 03, 2015 rated it it was amazing
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.
Jul 14, 2010 rated it really liked it
Shelves: love-em
It's a great history of New York City and an even better natural history of the oyster. Ignore the recipes.
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Mark Kurlansky has written, edited, or contributed to twenty books, which have been translated into twenty-five languages and won numerous prizes. His previous books Cod, Salt, 1968, and The Food of a Younger Land were all New York Times best-sellers.
“Both the steamboat service to Albany and the Erie Canal were destined to be swiftly fleeting marvels, eclipsed by the next idea. Only seven years after the Seneca Chief brought whitefish to New York Harbor, the city’s railroad age had begun. The” 2 likes
“This is New York: skyscraper champion of the world where slickers and know-it-alls peddle gold bricks to each other and where the truth, crushed to earth, rises again more phony than a glass eye. —BEN HECHT,
Nothing Sacred, 1937”
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