To the oyster connoisseur, there is nothing more beautiful than a few of these succulent gems glistening on the half-shell, perched on a glistening bed of ice, waiting to satisfy your most primal urge to connect with the sea. Have they always been served up this way? Not exactly. Ever since that brave soul popped open the first oyster we’ve attempted to meddle with the simplicity of nature’s perfect treat. The development of new and interesting ways to enjoy the oyster has coincidentally mirrored the progression of various cultures, as these bivalves have been prepared in just about every fashion imaginable ranging from the luxurious to the practical.
The earliest proof of oyster consumption dates as far back as 164,000 years ago. Anthropologists have located caves in South Africa which house the cast-off shells of ancient seafood feasts consisting of oysters, clams, and even the species Coronulidae, a type of barnacle only found on the skin of whales. This demonstrates an early connection to the sea, and a reliance on the ocean as a source of food. Anthropologists argue that these artifacts complete with specific tools made for the occasion, may be the earliest evidence of ritualistic behavior or ceremony related to culture, a definitive trait of modern Homo Sapiens.
This appreciation for the sea and its bounty as a cornerstone of modern culture was passed on to the Chinese, Romans, and eventually the Greeks. These civilizations discovered how to culture oysters in locations other than where the seed is harvested, by collecting spat on sticks or bamboo surrounding a bed of mature oysters. The necessity for developing these techniques reportedly arose from the reputation the Oyster carried as the most powerful aphrodisiac available. These ancient peoples were known to have consumed oysters during any occasion worth its salt, from weddings to feasts, and just about any banquet or ceremony in between.
As a matter of fact, oysters were so popular among the elite of Ancient Rome, that a number of recipes featuring the oyster and other shellfish were featured in the pages of the world’s first cookbook. Attributed to the immensely rich Marcus Gavius Apicius, who killed himself when he could no longer afford to eat the luxurious foods he was accustomed to. Although the Romans left evidence of their techniques for enjoying oysters and other shellfish, it is noted that much of the early oyster supply would have been consumed by the elite. It is estimated that a single oyster may have run an affluent roman around 1 denarius, equal to about a day of hard labor in ancient times.
However, if we fast forward to the mid 1800’s, and take a look at the rapidly expanding cities of The United States such as New York City, San Francisco, New Orleans, Philadelphia, Boston, and Baltimore, we find that the availability of oysters as a seemingly abundant, inexpensive source of protein made possible a revolution of shellfish related culinary innovation. Recipes such as poached oysters, fried oysters, oyster pie, oyster patties, escalloped, fricasseed, and pickled all became commonplace on menus across the country.
There were so many oyster stalls, bars, cafes, counters, and rooms in NYC during this time period, that they would have been just about as common as hot dog vendors are today. One could find oysters in both the finest white table cloth restaurants, as well as in various forms sold as street food from makeshift stalls. You could even buy shucked quantities ready to cook from peddlers who would go door to door advertising their wares. Oysters were the fare of the wealthy and impoverished alike during this time period, making them a cultural phenomenon at a time where there was such a discrepancy between the classes.
A prime example of the ability of the oyster to help bridge this gap between the classes, and thereby open the door to improved cultural diversity, can be found in the abundance of so called oyster cellars found in the city of New York. Started by working class men. One of the entrepreneurs was a man by the name of Thomas Downing, an African American businessman who listed his occupation as “oysterman” in the city’s directory. Mr. Downing’s establishment, Downing’s Oyster House, became well known and celebrated in the early 1800’s for its willingness to experiment with the culinary possibilities of the oyster at a time when they were mainly enjoyed raw, fried, or stewed.
Now, we see oysters all over menus at beach-side clam shacks, dollar oyster nights, polished oyster bars, and even presented grandly in the realm of haute cuisine. From an elite and exclusive treat, to a ubiquitous protein source, we have found many ways to whet our appetites, slurping and cultivating these majestic creatures.