THROUGH THE WOODS: The Big Oyster

An oyster in half its shell. Photo contributed

A FEW YEARS AGO, I read The Big Oyster: A Molluscular History of New York by Mark Kurlansky and found it a wonderful book, easy to read, with so much history of our colonial beginnings in this state and information about one of my favorite foods. An older friend of mine who lived in Manhattan for years told me about one of their school trips to the American Museum of Natural History, where a giant model of an oyster (Crassostrea virginicas) and its detailed anatomy was on exhibit. She took one look at it and vowed never to eat one.

She probably blocked out the real importance of the exhibit. When Peter Minuit bought Manhattan for $24 in 1626, he showed his intelligence by also buying the oyster beds off nearby Oyster Island, later renamed Ellis Island in 1770. Oysters were cheap and abundant food found around areas of Long Island (such as Oyster Bay), Staten Island and up the Hudson River where they thrived in pristine, unpolluted waters.

The early settlers learned from the Native Americans like the Lenape to relish the oyster and archaeologists have found huge, ancient piles of oyster shells in excavations showing how important oysters were as a food source. Of course the Dutch, being good businessmen and traders, shipped them to Europe. I go back to these early Dutch; our family has always eaten oysters and included them in our Thanksgiving dinners.

Our Austerlitz, NY, farmhouse had modest middens of oyster shells, often turned up in our vegetable gardens along with broken bits of blue and white pottery. Later shipments of oysters came in barrels by train. Spencertown had church dinners of oysters shucked by member wives and their families. My parents and grandparents had fond memories of these events and they were still relatively inexpensive. They were an early version of our current chicken barbeque dinners. I continue the tradition of a scalloped oyster dish for Thanksgiving.

An invitation to one of my nieces this year came with the request that my oysters were the dish I must bring. Her father won’t touch an oyster or even look at them, so we tease him that it leaves even more for his wife (my sister) and the rest of us! I keep giving the recipe and directions to other family members in the hope that this dish won’t be lost.

It is sad that heavy pollution since the late 1800s has killed most of the New York oyster beds, although efforts are being made to restore them. Some were once shipped to us from Boston and the East Coast. This year my oysters are from the State of Washington. They will be checked for bits of shell, added to layers of crushed saltines, dabs of butter, pepper, and a mixture of milk and cream. Some add onion and celery that have been sauteed in butter. I am a purist. The oysters have become an expensive luxury and I want to taste them. In fact, I just may skip the turkey!

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