Long before the rise of the slice, the hot dog, or the bagel, the oyster reigned supreme as the defining food of New York City.
Mark Kurlansky chronicled the ascendancy and decline of the urban oyster in his 2007 book ‘The Big Oyster.’
He writes: “Before the 20th century, when people thought of New York, they thought of oysters. This is what New York was to the world — a great oceangoing port where people ate succulent local oysters from their harbor. Visitors looked forward to trying them. New Yorkers ate them constantly. They also sold them by the millions.”
While visiting New York in the 1790’s, Frenchman Moreau de St. Mery remarked, “Americans have a passion for oysters, which they eat at all hours, even in the streets.”
Unfortunately, by 1927, pollution in the harbor had grown to such a level that New York harbor oysters were too polluted to eat. However, recent years have seen a growing amount of oyster production in coastal waters beyond the harbor.
This month, The Brooklyn Kitchen and Walrus and Carpenter Oysters, an oyster farm in Rhode Island, are teaming up to bring a load of freshly-harvested oysters to Brooklyn, at just the time of year when they’re at their best.
Why do an oyster CSA, you ask?
When they decided to found an oyster farm in 2009, Walrus and Carpenter owners Sean Patch and Jules Opton-Himmel set out to create a business that was both profitable and sustainable. Oysters made sense – they naturally filter the water they live in (as much as several gallons a day for adult oysters), which greatly benefits the health of coastal marine ecosystems.
But to then ship those Rhode Island oysters across the country, Opton-Himmel explained, would kind of negate that benefit. So they decided to use the CSA model to keep sales local in order to maximize quality and freshness and to minimize environmental impact.
What’s so good about these oysters?
They’ll be fresh. Walrus and Carpenter will be harvesting the oysters no more than twelve hours before heading for Brooklyn. It’s also the best time of year to eat oysters, according to Opton-Himmel because in late autumn and early winter oysters are at their sweetest and meatiest, as they feast to prepare for their winter hibernation.
How does it work?
1. Decide how many oysters you want. A full share of 100 oysters is $100. A half share, of 50 oysters, is $63. A quarter share of 25 oysters is $31.
2. Put in your order with Walrus and Carpenter by calling them at 617.684.5079 or emailing them at firstname.lastname@example.org.
3. Pick up your oysters at The Brooklyn Kitchen (100 Frost Street in Williamsburg) on Saturday December 17, between noon and 4pm.
Walrus and Carpenter will be giving free shucking lessons at the pickup, and they’ll be selling shucking knives for $15.
Some more New York oyster trivia, from ‘The Big Oyster’:
- New York harbor once had 350 square miles of oyster beds.
- Some biologists estimate that New York harbor once contained half the world’s oysters.
- Ellis and Liberty Islands were once called Little Oyster Island and Great Oyster Island because of the vast oyster beds surrounding them.
- The original oyster population in New York harbor was capable of filtering all of the harbor’s water in a matter of days.
- Trinity Church in lower Manhattan was built with oyster-shell mortar paste
And yes, efforts are apparently underway to return oysters to the harbor. Science Line has the details.