New York City and the Oyster. It’s Complicated.

Chef’s choice of twelve succulent bivalves paired with an Absinthe Drip at Williamsburg’s Maison Premiere... The Grand Royal platter and a round of Red Snappers at the St. Regis... A dizzying amount from a daily selection of upwards of 30 varieties, doused in lemon and Tabasco, slurped back and washed down with a cascade of gin Oyster Bar-tinis... Oysters and New York, an epicurean journey of archetypical dimensions.

Except, none of the oysters consumed in the Big Apple and its boroughs are actually from New York City waters. Thank GAWD, one exhales while dribbling mignonette sauce from a teeny tiny spoon over the lustrous and seductive contents.

Not so fast.

These waters, eliciting visions of greasy vermin-infested dockyards and made famous by movie scenes of bloated and bloodied results of gangster activity washing up on New Jersey shores. These waters once provided a bountiful and bawdy output of this classic New York food offering.

1609. Henry Hudson sails into New York Harbor, one of the most naturally perfect harbors the world over. The brackish waters also host, unbeknownst to Hudson, what was soon to be a hotbed of local economic activity for the two centuries to follow. Introduced as a food source by the Lenape tribe native to the area, the simple and abundant mollusk become both delicacy and dietary staple for the new settlers.

Below the choppy river surface lives over 200,000 acres of the peaceful filtering organisms, representing nearly half of the world’s population of the creatures. The New York oyster is poised to become one of New York City’s greatest natural resources.

New York a city in N. America inhabited by English and Dutch subject to the K. of England.
New York a city in N. America inhabited by English and Dutch subject to the K. of England.

1885. Oyster snack carts are Manhattan’s quintessential “street meat.” Oyster taverns or saloons are as prevalent on Manhattan street corners in the 19th century, as Starbucks will be in the 21st. The Ladies Oyster Shop is opened to serve an audience of the fairer sex who wish to enjoy the shellfish treat without the company of a male companion.

The “Canal Street Plan”, the oyster saloon happy hour, features all-you-can-eat for 6p. New Yorkers scarf down over five hundred per year per capita. Pearl Street is said to have been paved with the discarded shells. Millions are exported to major world centers.

The wealthiest men in New York are key oyster bedders, boasting streets in Staten Island named in their honor. Oyster houses become “the” places to dine for the working class and ruling class alike. The New York oyster becomes an oxymoronic culinary offering with wide-reaching affordability satisfying every budget and appetite.

Oyster Stands In Fulton Market
Oyster Stands In Fulton Market. Photo: New York Public Library
Oyster shells for oyster "farming"
Oyster shells for oyster “farming”. Photo: New York Public Library

1910. Over 600 million gallons of raw sewage per day is irreverently dumped into the harbor. The New York oyster proves itself to be the canary in a Herculean watery coal mine. Now consuming over one billion oysters per year, New York is falling ill. Cholera and typhoid take down the metropolis’ inhabitants, worse in some of the poorer neighborhoods. The rabidly consumed, and now near toxic, bivalves are to blame. Oysters suffer the sad fate of being over-harvested and consumed to the point of gluttony and systemic poisoning.

Sugar and Matchbooks from the Grand Central Terminal Oyster Bar. 1920's to 1950's. Source: I Ride the Harlem Line
Sugar and Matchbooks from the Grand Central Terminal Oyster Bar. 1920s to 1950s. Source: I Ride the Harlem Line

1927. All New York Harbor oyster beds are condemned and closed down. Sad trombone…

1972. The Clean Water Act is passed. New York City oysters (in much smaller numbers) survive still, but remain inedible. No one thinks much about this…until…

Photo of Chef Tom Sato working at the Oyster Bar. Image appeared in the New York Times in 1974, before the restaurant closed.
Photo of Chef Tom Sato working at the Oyster Bar. Image appeared in the New York Times in 1974, before the restaurant closed.

2012. Hurricane Sandy slams into the New Jersey shore, floods New York City streets, fills subway tunnels and cuts power to millions of residents. Over $60 million in damages reported. The oyster beds of yore created a natural sea wall which, if hadn’t been all but destroyed, would have calmed and controlled the flood waters, greatly reducing the destructive force of the storm…and future storms.

Add to this, the water in the harbor is still too sullied for the good of any living creature. But the New York City oyster, like any good New Yorker, believes in itself beyond any reasonable belief system.

Photo: New York’s Billion Oyster Project.
Photo: New York’s Billion Oyster Project.

2030. The Billion Oyster Project finds success at the end of its intended goal. School children for the past two-and-half decades have actively participated in a New York Harbor School. Using discarded shells donated by local restaurateurs, shell reefs have been seeded and re-bedded in the NYC Harbor in numbers great enough to restore the ecosystem and rebuild the natural protective sea wall.

Throughout that time, the happy little bivalves have been doing their daily work at filtering the harbors semi-salty waters. New York City oysters are starting to feel more themselves.

2050. Grand Central Oyster Bar menu reads:
Raritan Bay Oysters, Organic, Gluten-free, Non-vegan (Staten Island): $25.00

And so it goes.

To anyone who is familiar with New Yorkers, it should not be surprising to learn that they were once famous for eating their food live.”