Visit New York – Eat Tiny Ancient Gods

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I’ve been writing  about how best to visit New York. How to avoid Museum Headache; why you should ride the subway, and more recently I advised that getting a drink was one of the most historically accurate things you could do in New York City. Here, I‘ve added another key step, another way to get to know the city with deeper, more ancient roots. It is to worship and praise with your attention one of the most venerable spirits of these Islands and these waters, to call forth a time that includes all of New York City, New Amsterdam, the villages of the Lenape and continues to stretch into the distant past. It is an act as significant as the old Doges of Venice who once a year cast a ring into the ocean to marry the city and sea as insolubly one, except it is one performed a million times a year in New York. It goes like this, take the small faceless god in hand, snuggled in its shell, bring it to your lips, smell the ancient ocean, tip your head back and… swallow, saying a joyful prayer to the oyster. 

As far as small gods go, the oyster has received plenty of attention of the years. One of the greatest hagiographers and most recent odes Mark Kurlansky in The Big Oyster. Oysters mark our humanity in the Hudson Valley. The oldest known midden (a pile of oyster shells deposited after feasting upon them) on the Hudson is dated to 6950 BC! That’s eight and half millennia before Henry Hudson’s arrival, and six millennia before the arrival of the Lenape. It is in fact the oldest evidence whatsoever of human habitation in the Hudson Valley. Yet these same oysters are ancient gods and remind us of our recent appearance. The oldest oyster fossils we have in the world are from somewhere in the range of 520 million years ago, but they finally migrated to the Hudson Valley about 12,000 years ago. People on Manhattan have been consuming them ever since. Thousands of middens have been discovered, piles of countless oysters consumed. The Lenape covered their dead with oysters shells and spent endless hours hunting, harvesting, opening and eating oysters. And, as Kurlansky points out, it can hardly seem “rational”. Oysters are mostly shell, and the little of it we consume is not an effective source of nutrition. But the answer is that it is not rational, nor is it meant to be. Oysters are about pleasure. They are about absorbing the ancient sea inside of us. They are about the whiff of the Cambrian, the scent of the Cretaceous and swallowing whole of hundreds of millions of years at once with a dash of lemon. 

Even the Dutch come-lately in the 17th century knew what heaven they arrived in as they set up their villages among the 350 square miles of oyster beds around Manhattan. They were so abundant that they were difficult to sell in New Amsterdam, so they enthusiastically ate them instead or used them as ritual gifts for their oyster-less relatives in New Orange (Albany), who sent apples in return. They ate them fresh out of the shell at picnics, they baked them in huge batches, they pickled them to send abroad or stuffed game birds full of them for sumptuous meals. They paved their streets with the shells (hence Pearl Street), made lime for buildings and fertilizer by burning them. Washington Irving, their great chronicler noted that when the Dutch first were shipwrecked on Manhattan, they made a feast of the oysters they found: 

Some pretend that these billows were sent by old Neptune to strand the expedition on a spot whereon was to be founded his stronghold in this western world; others, more pious, attribute everything to the guardianship of the good St. Nicholas; and after events will be found to corroborate this opinion. Oloffe Van Kortlandt was a devout trencherman. Every repast was a kind of religious rite with him; and his first thought on finding him once more on dry ground was how he should contrive to celebrate his wonderful escape from Hell-gate and all its horrors by a solemn banquet. The stores which had been provided for the voyage by the good housewives of Communipaw were nearly exhausted; but in casting his eyes about the commodore beheld that the shore abounded with oysters. A great store of these was instantly collected; a fire was made at the foot of a tree; all hands fell to roasting, and broiling, and stewing, and frying, and a sumptuous repast was soon set forth. This is thought to be the origin of those civic feasts with which, to the present day, all our public affairs are celebrated, and in which the oyster is ever sure to play an important part. – A Knickerbocker History of New York

 As New Amsterdam became New York and the population increased considerably, everyone had less time to wander into the muck to find oysters for themselves and a respectable trade began. People ate them all day and night from carts at the end of broad street, from boats, at bars and at home. The poor ate them, the rich ate them. New York honored the oyster and by 1715 enacted its measures to protect the tiny gods by banning oystering from May 1st to September 1st. This not only gave the oysters a chance to lay eggs and reproduce and grow, it’s also when they are most open to the vagaries of warm summer water and taste the worst. In September the city grew into a major party as everyone celebrated the return of their oyster together.  But by the 1800s, oyster worship and consumption had reached feverish heights. The regulations were ignored or laughed at, oyster beds were over-harvested and exhausted around New York Bay. And when the city was finally confronted with a solution to its fresh-water problem by building aqueducts to upstate reservoirs, its officials decided that the most profitable way for them to deal the its waste and run-off was to wash everything down into the harbor. That human killed off the oysters in the harbor and just about every other living thing. New Yorkers still hungered for their connection to the ancient sea, but now the oysters had to come from elsewhere, their abundance replaced by higher prices. 

They became the food of special occasions, of rare ritual and veneration. A few true devotees kept the flame of faith alive through the next century. Perhaps the greatest saint was recounted by the New Yorker Magazine reporter, Joseph Mitchell, about Mr. Hood, had very definite advice on how to eat them (he recommended this in lieu of going to a doctor):

Ask the [oyster] man for half a lemon, poke it a time or two to free the juice and squeeze it over the oysters. And the first one he knifes, pick it up and smell it, the you’d smell a rose, or a shot of brandy. That briny, seaweedy fragrance will clear your head; it’ll make your blood run faster. And don’t just eat six; take your time and eat a dozen. And the leave the man a generous tip and go buy yourself a fifty-cent cigar and put your hat on the side of your head and take a walk down to Bowling Green. Look at the sky! Isn’t it blue?” – Up in the Old Hotel

But the tiny gods were never truly lost, nor was that flame in New York. Over the last few decades more and more oysters have appeared and in greater abundance on New York tables, bars and even boats. They come from as close as Long Island and as far as the pacific. They are one of the most sustainably produced proteins, they even clean their environment as they grow. Their central temple is now located on Governors Island right in the middle of the Bay, where New York City public school children at the Harbor School help grow a new generation of oysters for the Billion Oyster Project, an ambitious plan to reseed the the whole harbor with as many oysters. They are already in the tens of millions. These small gods are cleaning up our ongoing mistake: every time it rains New York City’s harbor still floods with sewage. Those oysters help clean and filter those toxins along with a century of toxic waste runoff from our factories (so of course we cannot eat our local oysters until we confront this original sin). But every oyster you do eat helps! It promotes more oyster farms elsewhere, but it also connects back to our own sea, so close and so far. The BOP helps restaurant donate its many waste shells to make new oyster beds for New York, as its ancient gods return one by one. It is the most ancient and modern act of worship you can do in New York. Walk confidently into a bar (between September 1st and May 1st), onto a boat, into a restaurant and order a dozen oysters, at happy hour for a dollar a piece, at a premium, as part of a seafood tower, with lemon or mignonette or hot sauce or nothing but their own sweetness and salinity, tip its shell back into your mouth, close your eyes and let the darkness of the ancient sea warm you. 

It really is astonishing now how widely oysters are available again in New York City, and more so every year. Your best bet is to get them where lots of other people are getting them (whether a bar or restaurant or wherever) because that means they are using lots of them (and so they are fresher) and the staff gets more experience opening and serving them. And yes you can eat them in summer months, oyster bed health is closely monitored these days. But they really aren’t as good in the summer, so order more cautiously and from as far north as possible (where the water is colder). Here are a few places to start: 

Grand Central Oyster Bar – another temple that has kept the flame alive. Their beautiful Guastavino-tiled restaurant has a proper oyster bar, but you can order them anywhere in giant restaurant, including the lounge, the snaking lunch counter and the restaurant. You can get them fresh or cooked in classic style like Oyster Rockefeller. 

Maison Premiere – Lots and lots of oysters from all over, plus beautiful seafood towers, cocktails and decor in Williamsburg.  

Pilot and Grand Banks – Two lovingly restored, historic schooners, docked in Brooklyn and Manhattan, doing spectacular oyster service with spectacular views. 

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