In 1609, Henry Hudson was exploring the Atlantic coastline looking for a river to China. Sailing northward around a sandy, narrow peninsula, he came into the shallow waterways of a peculiar bay.
The estuary where Hudson found himself had miles of sprawling oyster beds tucked into the many coves of its coastline. It was, according to some accounts, home to half the world’s oysters. The native Lenape people ate copious quantities, and Hudson needed only reach into the warm, brackish waters for his first taste of New York oysters.
In 1835, Thomas Downing was prowling what was, by then, a bustling New York Harbor, looking for deals on the best oysters. On a clear night, he rowed out on the dark water in a rented skiff, intercepted a schooner, and boarded it. The oyster captains knew Downing, and when he rowed out to them at night, they would usually sell him the finest of their catch.
Downing was one of the most respected black men in pre-Civil War New York. He ran the city’s most celebrated oyster cellar in the basement of 5 Broad Street. Downing’s, like other oyster cellars, was marked by a red light over dank sidewalk steps, though less seedy than the cellar bars farther uptown. Behind the long counter, a row of shuckers opened oysters, their movements like clockwork. Knives flashed. Shells yawned.
Downing’s had a reputation for excellent, fat oysters: raw, fried, and stewed. It was a place where oysters were eaten and deals were made, where oyster captains were treated as well as leading businessmen and politicians. This was, Mark Kurlansky writes in his 2006 history of New York City, “one of the few moments in culinary history when a single food, served in more or less the same preparations, was common place for all socioeconomic levels.”
The rich, in brick houses with a view of the harbor, roasted oysters in cozy fireplaces, or attended expensive banquets at Delmonico’s. There, to start their feast, they were served oysters béchamel.
Even so, the oyster remained a cheap source of food and available means of income for the poor; it was egalitarian.
“It’s a very remarkable circumstance, sir,” said Sam in Charles Dickens’ The Pickwick Papers, “that poverty and oysters always seem to go together.” And he was quite right. Street carts or dilapidated little shacks sold oysters at a penny a piece. Oyster stew was ten cents. A poor family, short of money and in search of dinner, could wade out and gather oysters.
In 1898, with a population of 2.5 million, the fast-growing metropolis became the second largest city in the Western world, after London. New York was eating as many as a million oysters a day. In the face of industrialization, steam power fishing, and the excessive consumption of guzzling Victorians, the oyster stock was exhausted and getting worse.
By 1910, the oyster beds in New York Harbor were all but ruined. Oysters, a reflection of the quality of water in which they live, showed the sea had become a dumping ground. The waters of the harbor were fouled with sewage and discharges from city factories. An outcry grew over what the New York Times called “sewage fed oysters.”
New Yorkers had killed their estuary.