“Oysters Are Going To Save The World?!” – A deep-dive into the radical notion of “Oyster-Tecture” (Part One)

They just might! And there are more and more human beings on this planet that believe it could be so.

But let’s take a step back in time before we look at the oyster in our modern era. 

Mostly now, oysters are a feared food. Many people think they actually might die if they eat an oyster. Now if ya eat a wild one… I might agree with you… if ya could even find one. But I have brought many farmed, fresh, very safe, shucked oysters to dinner parties… and I end up being the only one who eats them. Actually, that’s ok with me but it troubles me that people truly misunderstand the oyster. Especially now that is on the brink of a revolution. 

Photo by EATNY.com

And that misunderstanding began in 1927… in New York City.  That is when the NYC health administration declared it law that all oyster harvesting or oyster farming in the NYC waterways was officially illegal due to the toxicity of the bivalve. Many people were getting sick and even dying.

What makes this declaration astounding, is that just less than 20 years before, in 1910, NYC served up an astonishing 1.4 billion… let me say that again… 1.4 BILLION oysters a year.  The average New Yorker (especially including the poor) ate 600 oysters annually. In the 18th and 19th centuries and early 20th century, New York City was synonymous with the oyster and most identified as the oyster capital of the world, serving up over half of the world’s entire oyster harvest. It is estimated that 220,000 acres or 350 miles of oyster reef encircled Manhattan and its waterways including New York Harbor. Thusly, it is imagined that over a trillion oysters made their home off New York City shores for 200 years. 

The Lenape look to the sea for food – photo by Westchester Magazine. com

And even before the white man got to Manhattan Island with his trinkets and his bright, shiny lies, the indigenous Lenape tribes dined voluminously on oysters and may have well instructed the white man as to their nutrition and culinary value, tempting them to their very  first addictive slurp.

Some of the oyster shells found at old Lenape community grounds (the piles of discarded shells are know as “middens”) are as large as 14” in diameter.  Plate sized oyster steaks were, no doubt, on the Lenape’s daily menu. So even by the time white settlers got to North American, the East Coast oyster had already been over harvested. The size was now down to 7” or 8” by 1650.

And good golly, the white man learned to LOVE oysters. Oyster carts were as predominant in NYC during the 1800s as hot dog carts are now. Oyster houses were everywhere and particularly the poor could enjoy this nutritious and tasty food for pennies (“all you can eat for 6 cents”)  It is one of the rare times in our culinary history that rich and poor people enjoyed the same delicacy. They were so popular that an oyster cellar opened for only women just off of Union Square as they could not go unaccompanied into regular oyster establishments. Pearl Street in NYC is named for the fact that it is paved with oyster shells.  NYC WAS oysters!

Photo by 99percentinvisible.org
Oyster shuckers – NYC 1895 – Photo by 99percentinvisible.org

It has been said that as late as the 1850s, the Gowanus Canal still spawned 12” oysters. Now take a moment and just think of what you know now about that notoriously polluted canal. That is the crux of the next part of our oyster story.

Gowanus Canal – 1979 – Photo by noaa-darrp.com

So yes…. people love to eat good food.  But people gotta poop (sorry… especially if ya eat oysters because it is a natural remedy for constipation)  So simply put, the peoples poop destroyed the New York oyster. Decimated it. Killed it for good. In basically, 20 years. 

By the early 1900s, nearly 600 million gallons of untreated sewage was being dumped daily into New York City’s waterways. This was seen as progress because it was getting the sewage from “the streets”. But progress always has a price.

It has been proven that a single adult oyster can filter 50 gallons of water per day. It is known that the oysters that once surrounded New York City could clean all of its waterways and harbors in just a couple of days. They are one of the most amazing creatures that provide clean water and sustainability via their reef structures for many different, diverse marine life-forms. But they couldn’t handle all of this poop. I mean… who could?

Photo and caption by Imgur.com

So the oysters became toxic… NOT because of their own innate toxicity but because they were filtering all of this overwhelming and diseased human sewage. 

And THAT is how we got the notion that eating an oyster could kill us. And back in 1920, it could! 

So… we’re going to end Part One with the destructive nature of poop. But Part Two.. just wait until you hear how the oyster is emerging again to save us all! Stay tuned!!

Photo by FoodRepublic.com

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