Our listeners chose the lowly oyster—not the exalted bagel— as the only edible object on our list of ten items which define New York City. In a number of ways, the rise and demise of the harbor oyster is the story of the city itself.
“The history of New York is the history of gobbling up everything,” Mark Kurlansky, author of The Big Oyster explains. “When there was deer and elk and lynx and all sorts of things on Manhattan, people ate that stuff. The wild fruit trees that once covered New York are all gone too. It reaches the point where the one natural resource that’s left to eat are oysters.” And by most accounts, early New Yorkers ate oysters by the bucketful. They were harvested by the Lenape Indians and loved by the Dutch and British colonists. The bivalve was once synonymous with New York City. “Today, people come to New York and take in a Broadway Show—it used to be that people from all over the world would come here for the oysters,” Kurlansky said. (continue reading)
The oysters of New York Harbor—like the great western buffalo— faced catastrophe at the end of the 19th century. Pollution and overharvesting contributed to the oyster’s demise. The last commercial oyster bed in the Harbor closed in 1927. “The 1950s and 60s were when the water got really bad. I remember New York City water had this kind of opalescent sheen,” Kurklansy explained. “In some places the water would actually bubble. Nothing, not even oysters, could live in it.”
Following the passage of the Clean Water Act in 1972 the quality of New York Harbor began to drastically improve. Now there are several organizations that are actively trying to bring oyster beds back, but their aim isn't to revive the commercial oyster industry that dredged much of New York Harbor in the 1800s. “It’s really more of a symbolic act, to show that we are cleaning up the water,” said Kurlansky.
Oysters of the same species can taste drastically different depending on the kind and quality of the water they mature in. Yes, even oysters have their own terroir. So, what would an oyster from New York Harbor taste like? Kurlansky advised against trying one, but said, “They would probably taste fine – I don’t think PCBs have any particular taste."
Watch champion oyster shucker John Bil demonstrate his skills on the Leonard Lopate Show: