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The Big Oyster: History on the Half Shell Paperback – January 9, 2007

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Starred Review. Here's a chatty, free-wheeling history of New York City told from the humble perspective of the once copious, eagerly consumed, now decimated eastern oyster (Crassostrea virginicas). Research addict Kurlansky (Cod, etc.) starts from the earliest evidence of Lenape oyster middens, or beds, discovered by explorer Henry Hudson and others as evidence that natives enjoyed the shellfish as a delicacy, much as the Europeans did. When the Dutch arrived, the estuary of the lower Hudson, with its rich confluence of rivers, contained 350 square miles of oyster beds—"fully half of the world's oysters." The huge oyster stores contributed mightily to the mercantile wealth and natural renown of New Amsterdam, then inherited by the British, who were crazy about oysters; pickled oysters became an important trade with British West Indies slave plantations. While cheap, oysters appealed equally to the rich and poor, prompting famous establishments such as black-owned Downing's oyster cellar and Delmonico's (the enterprising author handily supplies historic recipes). The exhaustion of the city's oyster beds and pollution by sewage effectively eclipsed the consumption of local oysters by the 1920s, yet the lowly oyster still promotes the health of the waterways by its natural filtering system as well as indicating the purity of the water. Kurlansky's history digresses all over the place, and sparkles.
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From School Library Journal

Adult/High School–Once again Kurlansky uses an important natural resource as the focus of an inviting social and economic history. This time the topic is oysters native to the New York Harbor area, where once upon a time a pristine estuary, beautifully evoked by the author, created an ideal habitat. Oysters thrived there for centuries in enormous populations that were easily harvested, literally by the armful. When Western explorers led by Henry Hudson arrived in the early 1600s, gifts offered by initially friendly Native peoples included welcome supplies of the shellfish, a longtime favorite food item in Europe. (One of several dozen recipes in the book is a Middle English description of cooking Oystres in grave, dating from the 15th century.) The succulent bivalves became internationally famous and were popular with both rich and poor; specialized eateries, the city's famous oyster cellars, were established to meet the demand. The market for oysters boomed and kept booming–until waterfront pollution destroyed the abundant beds. This ecological cautionary tale is enriched by wide-ranging narratives about the customs and politics of earlier times, all cleverly tied to oyster consumption and related in breezy, sparkling prose.–Starr E. Smith, Fairfax County Public Library, VA
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 336 pages
  • Publisher: Random House Trade Paperbacks; Reprint edition (January 9, 2007)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0345476395
  • ISBN-13: 978-0345476395
  • Product Dimensions: 5.2 x 0.7 x 8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 7.2 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (88 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #37,897 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

Mark Kurlansky is a New York Times bestselling and James A. Beard Award-winning author. He is the recipient of a Bon Appétit American Food and Entertaining Award for Food Writer of the Year, and the Glenfiddich Food and Drink Award for Food Book of the year.

Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

37 of 39 people found the following review helpful By Addison Phillips on April 11, 2006
Format: Hardcover
BIG OYSTER is Kurlansky's latest food-themed history (following his previous COD and SALT). It differs from his previous books in several ways, but still serves up a tasty morsel.

Although the title and cover suggest that the book is about oysters, it's actually a history of New York city--the choices and, in particular, the (hindsight-only) mistakes in handling the environment that transformed Manhattan island and its surroundings from pastoral beauty to modern Gotham. Today, New York is the very totem, the very image of "city". This is how it got that way--through the eyes of the oyster.

As a book, it's an interesting read. Kurlansky's scholarship and research are excellent and we get telling anecdotes and solid detail throughout. The titular bivalve, though, sometimes goes missing from sections or has only a peripheral connection to much of the text. At the end the author notes that the book was adapted from Sunday supplement articles and it feels stretched. That's too bad, because it's still a good read and a pleasant diversion. (Don't think I'll try the 17th Century oyster recipes though...)
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40 of 45 people found the following review helpful By Jon Hunt on March 18, 2006
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
Mark Kurlansky has a knack for writing about meaningful food histories ("Cod" and "Salt" precede his new book, "The Big Oyster") and much of his new work is as fun as the others. Kurlansky offers a somewhat zig-zagging tale of the forward march of the oyster, most of it revolving around the history of New York.

Who would have thought that a writer could fill 280 pages of prose related to this delectable bivalve? Well, the answer is that while the author does tell much about the oyster there are many oysterless pages in evidence, somewhat stretched out by accompanying recipes. "The Big Oyster" is a book that is often in search of itself. It occasionally gets sidetracked in telling about the growth of New York, resulting in the unfortunate oyster sometimes getting pushed off to the side. However, Kurlansky is at his best when he gives reference to Oyster houses, floating wharves and markets and how the oyster became such a staple of both rich and poor. The demise of the New York City oyster beds (the last one closed in 1927) may be a depressing thought for most readers but Kurlansky heartens us by his providing readers with evidence that the waters around New York are cleaner now and that the oyster may one day return.

Kurlansky is terrific at explaining the anatomy of an oyster and how it lives. I didn't know that the oyster is the only mollusk that doesn't move around.... once it attaches itself to an object it remains there for the rest of its life. He's also very good at tidbits of trivia. I hadn't realized that for most of the nineteenth century the Hudson River was know as the "North River". These small "eye-openers" give the book lots of color.
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11 of 11 people found the following review helpful By NLB on November 3, 2006
Format: Hardcover
This book is absolutely captivating, with a perfect mix of New York historical references and oyster science. I'm from the Hudson Valley and like to eat oysters so this book was perfect for me. But don't think this is a stuffy history lesson. The author dishes up the history, the people, the oysters into a lively story that surprises the reader with word pictures of the times that seem so alive. He writes almost like a historical novelist. And the story itself is full of beauty, destruction, tintillating gossip and a sad ending. I'm not so sure I really want to eat oysters anymore, especially if they are from New York. I would read more from this author though.
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31 of 38 people found the following review helpful By Thomas Lackner on October 21, 2006
Format: Hardcover
I wish I could be more positive about a history of one of my favorite foods. I eat oysters on the half shell whenever I'm near a coast, I make oyster stew regularly, every Christmas my turkey gets oyster dressing ... So I'm partial to oysters. And I'm partial to Kurlansky, too. I thought both "Salt" and "Cod" were examples of great writing, not just great food writing; great because they took mundane subjects and turned them into interesting literature. "The Big Oyster" could have done the same thing for bivalves.

Why doesn't it get more than three stars? Too many mistakes. Some are little, quibbling mistakes, like his claim that the word "ecology" was not in use in 1891; Ernst Haeckel coined the term in 1869, and it was in widespread scientific use by the end of the 19th C. Others are more significant mistakes, like attributing invention of the telegraph to "Samuel T. Morse," and giving the same Morse credit for sending the first transatlantic telegram from Delmonico's in 1861. The telegraph, as most third-graders used to know, was invented by Samuel F. B. Morse. (Googling "Samuel T. Morse" produces only a reference to a 2001 lawsuit, filed in New Hampshire by the estate of one S.T. Morse, regarding some allegedly shoddy construction.) And the first transatlantic telegram was sent in 1858, not 1861, by Queen Victoria, not Samuel (F.B. or T.) Morse. The second, more successful transatlantic telegraph was constructed in 1866.

The worst mistake, however, is using the phrase "it was only a theory" when writing about Pasteur's work. To say that an idea is "only a theory" raises all sorts of red flags to scientists, indicating that the writer's grasp of the scientific method is perhaps somewhat tenuous.
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