37 of 39 people found the following review helpful
on April 12, 2006
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...)
40 of 45 people found the following review helpful
on March 18, 2006
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.
"The Big Oyster", as well as its predecessors, are enjoyable books about subjects one might otherwise not think about reading. Had the author not jumped around so much and kept the focus on his bivalve, he would have had a more streamlined book. Still, "The Big Oyster" is worth the read. I wonder if Kurlansky is already dreaming up a book on the history of caviar....
10 of 10 people found the following review helpful
on November 3, 2006
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.
31 of 38 people found the following review helpful
on October 21, 2006
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. By the 1880s the germ theory was just that: a well-tested, widely-accepted explanation of the cause of disease.
"The Big Oyster" is, like Kurlansky's other works, well-written and easy to read. One might wish, however, that his research was a little better this time. It makes the observant reader wonder what other mistakes the book might contain.
7 of 7 people found the following review helpful
I'm not sure what kind of person would buy this book. It's not 100% history, not 100% science, not 100% recipe, it's a little of everything. After reading this book, I'd say this book is for someone who's not afraid to try something different, some who likes oysters and a little history to go with their oysters. So what is this book about?
1) It's a little bit oysters. The science: such as scientific names, reproduction, anatomy, etc. Just a little, not too much to bore the casual reader, but not enough to interest the casual scientist. I tried to find more about oysters online but there's not a lot of info, I suppose I should go read a book on it.
2) It's a lot about the early to mid-1800's history of New York City. As I like history, I really liked this part.
3) It's a little about oyster recipes. Sprinkled throughout this book are recipes, many from old books and from famous cooks and restaurants. That's a gem. It must have take some effort to collect the recipes and whether you like them or not they are interesting, at least for their historical aspect.
4) It's a little about the history of the oyster trade. This is a very good part of the book as I don't think you could find much written on it anywhere else.
5) New York society in the old days. Talked about the who's who and where they would eat. Interesting reading.
6) New York slums and the inhabitants, also interesting reading.
So to summarize, this book is about oysters, the eating of oysters, the oyster trade and New York city. You can't pidgeonhole this book because it's not history, not gastronomy, but a little of everything. It's quite well written and very easy to read. I enjoyed reading it, a break from my regular diet of thrillers. In fact, I enjoyed it so much that I'm going to get Cod and Salt, two other books by this author that got mixed reviews. But I think the author deserves my custom after this book.
5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
on September 26, 2007
First off, I am a chef...so my five-star rating might be taken with a grain of sea salt. Also, I am a chef from New York City...who still opens a couple of hundred oysters a week.
I learned bunches from Mark's book. I was able to justify a long held stance about storing oysters in the face of superstition from my twenty-something rock-star staff.
I owned a restaurant in Telluride, Colorado back in the 70's. We dug around in the basement and found menus from the 1890's that featured fresh New York City oysters.....long before refrigeration. The book reveals how this worked, and consequently saved me a few hundred dollars every week. Five stars indeed1
Meanwhile, Mark gives an in-depth sociological, geographic and gastronomical account of how the oyster affected life in New York and America. In many ways the oyster is the canary in the coal mine of our inland waterways. If the oyster is happy with the water....you are probably OK with the water. No oyster.....don't even think about jumping in. Oysters kept New York City harbor water clean for millenia....until overwhelmed by chemical pollution.
Just this morning I picked up Mother Jones, and read an article about the largest oil spill in American history: in Newtown Creek between Queens and Brooklyn. Having read Mark's book....I already knew the history of Newtown Creek...once the source of millions of oysters and the support of an entire social structure.
Oysters had started a comeback there in 1997. Ooops. Back to the drawing board.
Buy the book. Learn something.
6 of 7 people found the following review helpful
on April 12, 2007
As a practicing malacologist, I generally avoid reviewing books in my field on Amazon. However, The Big Oyster: History on the Half Shell by Mark Kurlansky is less about oysters as invertebrates, but rather, it provides an oyster's-eye view of the evolution of modern New York City. The author makes a strong case for the importance of Crassostrea virginica in the sociological and economic development of the Big Apple: All the major events in the city's 350 year history can somehow be related to peoples' insatiable desire for oysters.
The style of The Big Oyster is more typical of a travelogue, but instead of adventuring across space at a particular time, Kurlansky is moving along the time line of a particular place. (And, really, Relativity says that this contrast doesn't actually exist: Space... Time... What's the difference?) One could take any number of paths through the history of New York, and this book happens to follow oysters. The author, though, is adept at finding intersections with other topics, and besides covering oyster preparation (with lots of recipes), oyster harvest and the oyster market, such interesting but disparate topics as Native American relations, transportation, prostitution, pollution and Diamond Jim Brady all find a place in this tale.
While I would not recommend The Big Oyster to students of invertebrate zoology on the basis of the book's biological merits, I found it to be an interesting and entertaining read. The Big Oyster left me craving both a plate of raw oysters on the half shell and more to read by Mark Kurlansky.
8 of 10 people found the following review helpful
on March 13, 2008
At first it seems curious that Mark Kurlansky would want to write a history of a city and its residents whom he so thoroughly dislikes. Then it becomes clear that the protagonists are the oysters, not the city or the people, and those oysters would still be doing just fine if it weren't for the depredations of civilization. Eventually you get caught up in the saga, but it's a little thin, so the author adds copious amounts of non-oyster New York City history. This part will seem somewhat duplicative of "The Island at the Center of the World," but it's almost as interesting the second time around. Then, just as you start taking him seriously as a historian, Kurlansky starts making the kind of egregious factual errors that throw his scholarship into question. On page 15, for instance he states that humans evolved 65 million years ago. Wow! The earliest hominid fossils date to about 2 million years ago. His disregard for science continues when he erroneously asserts that recapitulation is a "well established principal (sic) of evolutionary science." Actually it's a captivating, but long-debunked theory. Errors like these make us much less receptive to the hundreds of casual facts strewn throughout the book.
Here's a sincere tip for the prospective reader attracted to the book's subtitle, "History on the Half Shell." The entire story of the history of the oyster in New York City is contained in chapters 6 and 8. Of course if you want to read all about the gangs of New York, or the biography of Diamond Jim Brady, by all means, read the entire book. But the problem with reading the entire book is the turgid march of one colorless sentence after another. Any single page of Henry Thoreau contains more entertaining prose than Kurlansky's entire book.
Kurlansky repeatedly refers to New Yorkers' gluttony: "The two most common gastronomic observations made about nineteenth century New York were that the oysters were cheap and that the people ate enormous quantities not only of oysters, but of everything." That is Kurlansky's typical characterization of a New Yorker. Yet not one of the old photographs or pen and ink drawings illustrating the book depict a single obese person.
Overall, this is one of those badly written books about an interesting topic. If distilled to its essence, it might have made a good article in the Atlantic Monthly or The New Yorker. It will not make you thirst for Kurlansky's other books, "Salt," and "Cod."
3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
New Yorkers laugh about the pollution in the East River and Hudson and seek to escape to the pure air and water of countryside -- oblivious that New York City sits on an estuary that at one time was one of the great natural wonders of the world. Kurlansky focuses on oysters -- especially plentiful off of Staten Island and where the East River meets the Long Island Sound. Until the early 20th century, New York boasted the best and most plentiful oysters in the world. But oysters live by filtering seawater and need unslimy rocks or other objects on which to attach -- so the pollution of the harbor just killed things.
Oyster were also plentiful in the Great South Bay on the south shore of Long Island. At one time millions of clams were available there as well, and I can remember digging buckets-full of clams with my feet as late as the 1960s and mid 1970s. But that industry too died completely. The last time I saw the Bay not one clam boat was visible.
This tendency to foul our own nests is chilling -- especially if we are doing the same thing on a global scale via air and water pollution.
Kurlansky makes his point vividly and effectively. I could live without some of the trivia re oyster recipes. But the book reads well.
2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
on November 9, 2007
"O oysters" said the carpenter,"you've had a pleasant run! Shall we be trotting home again?"But answer came there none-And this was scarcely odd,because They'd eaten every one.'Such was Tweedledum and Tweedledees discourse to Alice in Carrolls' well known work.They'd eaten every one, ah yes; a common lament of oyster lovers everywhere because the once abundant stock in New York waters are essentially gone forever.The Big Oyster, a work of enormity with regard to the tiny creatures history, and a good one at that, is fantastic.The greatness and economic well being,the essence of affordable sustenance for both the poor and the rich of early New York and also the world began with the bottom dwelling,succulent mollusc called by science, 'Crassostrea Virginica' the most popular variety it seems.Kurlansky has put together a comprehensive and at times a jumpy but focused history of a sometimes gritty New York as a city and its environs in relation to oysters as a leading core of its burgeoning greatness.From the first encounter by Henry Hudson to the local Delaware indians,the first New Yorkers by rights, thrived on them as evidenced by the enormous piles of shells found called middens, to the developing cultures that dominated for a time only to be replaced by yet another country and culture.These aspects right up to the revolutionary war and beyond is clearly examined and dissected.Millions,probably billions of oysters were there for the taking and we made sure we took and took and took some more, depleting a natural depository which spanned hundreds of thousands of years to develop.It seems that New York harbor and the surrounding waters were paradise for them to live,breed and provide us with an abundant, almost unlimited cheap resource.The downfall was man and his pollution,greed and population growth which unfortunately did away with this perfect food harvested in New York waters we now view as a delicacy.Everything you need to know about the oyster from its anatomy,harvesting preparation with an abundance of recipies I'd never try,shucking, promotion and distribution world wide and locally, as well as an enlightening,colorful and comprehensive history of New York is presented here.You will finish this book far more informed than you began and quite possibly know darn near everything there is to know about early New York and the Oyster that made it famous.You will be drooling for sure.I had recurring dreams of two dozen on the half shell which would not abate until I got them,wolfed them down with the pleasure only a fellow oyster eater would know after a prolonged absence from our little friends.I did have one little exception which was amusingly disturbing. Kurlansky states that George Washington's thirty four year old son Philip was placed in charge by him, to redistribute New Yorks' property following the end of the revolutionary war.George did no such thing and by that time both of Washington's adopted children were dead.He never even had a relative called Philip.What happened to the fact checking prior to publishing? Good lord, for a writer of history this could end a career as a reliable source. It can only lead to suspicion of all your other works and their accuracy. I don't have time to check other items as I hear there are other discrepancies as well.Please be carefull in the future Mark.However,aside from the above, I will still recommend this book for its novelty.It's a joy to read from an oyster lovers perspective. As a New Yorker, our city's history is also refreshingly enlightening.My home town of Staten Island is clearly represented and I can only hope that the abundance that once was will one day return to its sandy ground former glory.As a New Yorker reviewing this sometimes gritty and hardscrabble history, I'm not ashamed to say,pushed my thoughts toward the Oyster Bar and Grill for its variety and notoriety. But, to truly enjoy my treat closer to home I make a beeline to Lobster House Joe's where I can relax with a couple dozen on ice with horseradish and an ice cold beer.Nothing can match it.After reading The Big Oyster the compatriotism is quite evident and allows me to savor them even further.The book is quite thorough and worthy of purchase. If you live in New York, buy it to learn your city's history. If you like oysters, buy it to widen your knowledge. If your both, lucky you.This is just what you need after a long day at work.Keep the history alive and keep eating but not too much!To make extinct our local favorite, Bluepoints, would be too much to bear. Oysters rule!!!