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History on the Half Shell

A-TheBigOysterKurlansky, author of Cod (1997) and Salt (2002), has proven himself a master of the microhistory of meal stuffs. Here he explains that when the Dutch and English first arrived in New York, they were delighted to discover that the islands of the lower Hudson were home to some 350 square miles of oyster beds. Native Americans had enjoyed the bivalves, but sparingly. In a prelude of things to come, the Europeans turned the surplus of Crassostrea virginica into a mania that lasted until the early 20th century. Bankers sat next to dockworkers, taking advantage of the all-you-could eat "Canal Street plan." But as the population swelled, the natural oyster supply dwindled. Technology paved the way for cultivation, but soon the thriving human population polluted the waterways. Through the lens of the oyster’s boom and bust, Kurlansky dredges up a parallel history of Manhattan.
Ballantine. 320 pages. $23.95. ISBN: 0345476387

San Francisco Chronicle 4 of 5 Stars
"[Salt and Cod] were in Cinemascope; this book has an 8mm immediacy. … [The] loss [of oysters] through human malfeasance is as melancholy as it was stupid and foreseeable. Kurlansky gets the ache of the bivalve’s tale just right." Peter Lewis

Cleveland Plain Dealer 3.5 of 5 Stars
"Kurlansky’s oyster-steeped approach turns out to be fun and accessible and proves to be a legitimate vehicle for considering the city as a whole. … The generous illustrations are good; the lack of footnotes is not." Judith C. Allen

New York Times 2.5 of 5 Stars
"The Big Oyster is part treatise, part miscellany, unfailingly entertaining but often aimless. Mr. Kurlansky starts out writing a history of the oyster in New York, but his digressive impulses often get the better of him, sending him on inexplicable side trips to ancient Rome and lengthy excursions into such nonoyster events as the draft riots and the rise of Delmonico’s restaurant." William Grimes

NY Times Book Review 2.5 of 5 Stars
"At times, you can hear the microfilm wheels screeching as Kurlansky, wearing oyster-colored glasses, scours diaries, menus, letters, newspapers and magazines in search of evidence. Sure, this is a book about oysters, but many of the references to oyster-love seem like padding or name-dropping." Elizabeth Royte

St. Petersburg Times 2.5 of 5 Stars
"Kurlansky … has done a fine job tracking the world’s appetites for oysters and the growth of New York as an economic center. … But there are limits to this food-history form that Kurlansky has made his signature dish." Bill Duryea

Critical Summary

Where Cod and Salt focused on individual ingredients and their place in world history, The Big Oyster constricts its focus to the role of oysters in the history of New York. For many reviewers, the narrowing of the subject makes his well-researched digressions seem out of place. Critics celebrate his account of Manhattan history and the often-surprising role oysters played in its burgeoning economy and social life, but they are generally disappointed in a story that is not as cohesive as they have come to expect from the author. If The Big Oyster doesn’t harbor any pearls, it offers a tasty snack—and a cautionary tale about our profligate use of resources.