What I am reading: The Big Oyster

As I packed for this week’s journey to New York (with a 24-hour swing into North Carolina), I went browsing through the bookshelves for something to feed my head and found a book I had bought over the Christmas holidays but forgot about. Nothing is better than the discovery of a new book among old ones, so into the knapsack it went, lasting me a scant three days before it was consumed and returned to the shelves.

The Big Oyster, by Mark Kurlansky, author of the wonderful food histories Cod and Salt, is an account of the role the oyster played in the development and culture of New York City. This being the world’s preeminent clamming blog (as measured In my own mind and by Clamorati, the clam blog search engine), I thought it proper to discuss Kurlansky’s contribution to the oeuvre of bivalve literature and how it may indeed inspire me to initiate the 2008 shellfishing season this weekend on Cotuit Bay.

Kurlansky is a good researcher, exhaustive in fact, and the danger of being an exhaustive researcher is that one stand the risk of turning into an insufferable pedant, but Kurlansky avoids tedium by maintaining a steady barrage of facts and miscellanies ranging from the science of aquaculture to the biology of the oyster drill, to historical nuggets such as from the Civil War Draft Riots to Diamond Jim Brady’s fabled gluttony (the man could suck down 72 oysters before tucking into a meal, I draw the line at 12).

Wednesday night, while dining with the good folks from Google and Neo, I saw oysters on the menu and ordered up a dozen, raising some eyebrows around the table as it seems more rare these days to kick off a meal with a plate of raw clams than a sad green salad. The waiter was excited by the order and seemed happy to describe the choices from the raw bar. A fellow stalker of the living rock? He offered a choice of the American mainstay, the Long Island Blue Point, a Maine belon (French style but not as tasty) or Pacific Northwest Olympias. We settled on a half-and-half order of the Blue Points and the belons, passed on the littlenecks (raw quahogs). I offered them on my tablemates and delivered my own pedantic discourse on the pleasures of the oyster, imparting to their great dismay such pearls as:

  1. There is only one species of American oyster, Crassostrea virginica, but great variations in their taste depending on where they are raised (few wild oysters are sold and indeed, oysters are one of the few things that when cultivated by man are actually improved over their wild counterparts).
  2. Southerners prefer larger, blander oysters than northerners. Cold water oysters grow more slowly than warm water oysters because of a combination of available nutrients and the fact that oysters stop growing when water temperature drop below a certain level. Northerners think Southern oysters taste mushy. Southeners think northern oysters taste harsh.
  3. [At this point the gentleman sitting to my left and the lady to my right are displaying signs of narcolepsy.]
  4. The old admonition not eat oysters in months with an “R” in them is an ancient warning more associated with the fact that warm months without “r’s” (July, August, etc.) are when oysters have sex and when oysters have sex their meat becomes less tasty than when they are celibate. Not because they will make you sick, though a bad oyster will make you sicker than the Black Death.
  5. Oysters are prodigious filter feeders and can turn an aquarium full of green nasty water clean in a matter of hours.

And on and on. Just read The Big Oyster for more fun oyster facts, but also for a very good history of New York City from the days of Verrazano to modern times when General Electric dumped a few hundred thousand pounds of PCBs into the Hudson and signed the death warrant for a lot of marine life in New York City (to be fair GE was only one of a gazillion sources of pollution).

Recreational oystering – as part of this blog’s mandate to cover clamming strategy – is not easily performed in the waters of Cotuit, despite the bay’s former reputation for producing some of the most desired oysters in the world. Those oysters are farmed by the Cotuit Oyster Company, which plants seed from elsewhere and raises it to market size – permitting the oysters to take on the unique flavor brought about by Cotuit’s sweet semi-brackish, spring fed water (don’t get me going). Wild oysters, the ones that probably littered the bottom and shores of the harbor 200 years ago and led to the construction of big shell piles (middens) by the Wampanoags, aren’t so abundant anymore, and Cousin Pete and I manage to eke a bushel out of the harbor before the other clamheads get to them. It’s hard work for a few clams, not nearly as easy to find as quahogs and steamers.

In closing: my tablemate at dinner asked me if I was still a big fisherman. “Not so much anymore,” I replied. She asked why I fished, was it for food? The sport? Communing with nature? I thought for a second, not quite sure, and realized the answer was too weird to say out loud and that is this: I think people are happiest standing in knee-deep water with a fishing rod or clam rake in their hand, because it’s there, half-in-and-out of the brine, that a few million years ago something strange crawled out of the depths and began the process of standing on dry land, on its own hind legs, with something tasty to eat in its claws. It is the place where we started, on that edge between water and land, and the place we’re compelled to return. This, according to my thinking, is why people like to coat themselves with sunblock and lie on the beach reading Grisham novels.

Instead I said, “I like to eat fish.”