Oyster, Oyster Where R Thou?
Probing the molluscal moral underbelly
By D. Silverman
“Shakespeare to his commentators is as the oyster to the oyster crab.”
— THE BOOKMAN: A Magazine of Literature and Life. April, 1907
“[Oyster crabs are] a sublimated reminder of the daintiest shrimp you ever ate, with about the same relationship in flavor that a mushroom has to a Brussels sprout.”
— The New York Times. November 9, 1913
And when was the last time you read an analogy involving an oyster crab?
New York City, for centuries, was basically a land mass engirdled by the world’s largest oyster bed. 499.5 years ago, when Giovanni da Verrazzano sailed La Dauphine through the Narrows into what is now our harbor—lurking below his bow were millions upon millions of marine mollusks carpeting an area larger than all of today’s five boroughs combined.
Some fraction of those oysters were sharing their shell with a small translucent soft-shell crab bedding down in their pillowy flesh—not quite a parasite, but neither an invited houseguest—these ‘oyster crabs,’ as they came to be called, like many a rare provision, became a culinary delicacy.
The climax of oyster crab connoisseurship, up north, erupted with the Gilded Age into the Gay Nineties, and wilted with WWI—but by then, the harbor was nearly lifeless from pollution and over-harvesting; and the last commercial oyster beds clammed-up soon after.
One of the sweetest and quaintest viands known to man is now so generally neglected that more than 50 per cent of the people who think they know something about good eating have never tasted the dish. This food is the oyster crab.
– NEW YORK TIMES. DECEMBER 15, 1907
In practice, the oyster crab (taxonomically a ‘pea crab’) was and is more-common in southern waters, and to satisfy gourmand demand many were shipped up from, and still yet inhabit, the oyster beds of Chesapeake Bay.
While Verrazzano and crew may have been the first Europeans to cross Brooklyn ferry, there were other people here already—and the Lenape had been harvesting shellfish for ages, leaving behind vast middens (waste heaps) of discarded shells. Not to be outdone, the new arrivals raked up oysters at such a prodigious rate that the colonial governing body passed laws to restrict harvesting during the summer spawn.
An Act for Preserving of Oysters
Passed: May 19, 1715 [Exp: July 19, 1720]
Yada, yada, …can’t gather or bring to market any oysters, whatsoever, from May 1st until September 1st… so on, and so forth…
And be it further Enacted… it shall not be Lawful for any Negro, Indian or Mulatto Slave to sell any oysters in the City of New York at any time whatsoever…
(Thereby preserving both crustacean procreation, and racial oppression, in the guise of environmentalism.)
An Act for the better Preservation of Oysters
Passed: October 17, 1730 [Exp: Dec 1, 1744]
Blah, blah, …still can’t gather or bring to market any oysters, whatsoever, from May first until September first, annually… so on, and so forth…
“AND whereas many Negro, Mulatto and other slaves have of late… take up oysters and bring the same to market in such great quantities that the oyster banks are like to be soon destroyed… [and they] are not only become very insolent… but also deprive the good inhabitants of this colony, more-particularly those living in the City of New York, from getting and fetching oysters for themselves and their families.”
“Be it Enacted… That no Negro, Indian or Mulatto… shall go in or with any boat… to any of the oyster banks in order to gather, rake or take up oysters thereon, unless there be one or more white-men in the same boat…”
(Oyster preservation now takes second-fiddle to ensuring that white men oversee the harvesting—at a time when about one fifth of the city’s population were slaves.)
The penalty for individuals violating the Preservation Act was a fine of twenty shillings. Horrifyingly, and perversely preserving-shillings: for any slaves caught harvesting without a white man present—if their master or mistress wouldn’t pay their fine, then they were subject to being publicly whipped with 15-31 lashes and tossed in jail until such time as a fee was paid to free them (from jail, not slavery). That fee, under five shillings, was to cover the ‘cost’ of whipping and confinement.
(Think of that, next time you buy an oyster.)
A century—and a revolutionary war—after Black men could be whipped for harvesting or selling oysters in NYC, a community of skilled southern oystermen fled north to settle in Sandy Ground, Staten Island, an early free-Black enclave.
Black oystermen soon prospered in farming and purveying their crustaceans in the city, which was exporting to the world; and in operating a flurry of Oyster Cellars, essentially saloons located below street-level and associated with booze and prostitution (and generally reserved for men).
The most successful and esteemed oysterman by far was Thomas Downing, born to freed-slaves and eventually coming to New York where he flourished—ultimately owning a famously upscale and respectable oyster house on Broad Street. (The restaurant’s cellar, storing barrels of oysters and wine, also served as a safe-house for fugitives heading north along the Underground Railroad.)
Downing became quite wealthy—but still not entitled to the full property rights of citizenship until the Civil Rights Act of 1866 was enacted the day before his death. As to the extent of his fortune, he was reserved—he refused to disclose the value of his assets to the 1860 census, “…lecturing the marshal rather sharply on the subject: Property,” said the celebrated oysterman, “cannot own property.”
If oysters were the bedrock of wealth, oyster- crabs were the sparkle…
Back when they still appeared on restaurant menus, local papers regularly published rapturous articles on the dainties, such as these in the Times: THE OYSTER-CRAB SALAD (March 20, 1893), A RARE DELICACY, LITTLE KNOWN (Dec 15, 1907) & OYSTER CRABS—THE EPICURE’S DELIGHT (Nov 9, 1913).
In the 1893 recipe, above, they advise: “It takes many gallons of the bivalve to furnish one pint of oyster crabs. Therefore… an order [should be placed] a week or ten days before they are wanted.”
Used by the ounce in salads and sauces, or lightly fried (often with whitebait), as fritters, or most-classically, to garnish oyster stew—these costly and rare morsels might today compare to a crustaceous cross between foie gras and caviar: something not so much eaten as aspired-to.
In Theodore Dreiser’s classic novel from 1900, Sister Carrie, the protagonists eventually end up living in a small flat in Greenwich Village (a step-down from their earlier residence on the Upper West Side). Hurstwood, leaving Carrie at home, goes out looking for work to restore his fortunes. He stops for lunch at Dorlon’s Oyster House, 6 East 23rd Street.
Like finding a pearl, the NYPL has an actual 1900 menu from the non-fictional Dorlon’s in its collection—and just at the top of the page, nestled among the starters, were “Oyster Crabs” for 75¢, or “Whitebait and Oyster Crabs” at 60¢. (No doubt the down-on-his-luck Hurstwood settled for lesser fare, though Dreiser omits to say.)
This article called for expert advice, so I consulted two of my favorite fishmongers—Paul, who helms Pura Vida Fisheries on Fridays at Union Sq. Greenmarket, and Catherine, who sidekicks at Seatuck Fish (Saturdays). Both carry local wild-harvested oysters and report that a goodly number will contain crabs (Paul prefers those cooked; but Catherine cites a superstition that if you find a crab, eating it raw, as she does, brings good luck).
And good luck indeed! While opening a stray oyster for a photo-op, fortune favored us with a beautiful little pea-crab, oyster-crab, or what-have-you, amidst the gills.
After the shoot, I carefully took the crablet home, applied a quick steam-bath, and popped her in my mouth, raw-luck be damned. (Crabs found in oysters are always female, the hard-shell males hover about nearby.)
I can report that the pea-size tidbit tasted, first, briny… with a finish evoking the sliver of red roe, or coral, sometimes found in a lobster. Good, though rather mild—and probably best suited to adorning a more-flavorful dish.
If you want to go all 19th Century for your Gilded Age-themed New Year’s Eve supper, and garnish a rich oyster stew with a few braised pink pea crabs, I suspect the Greenmarket purveyors could hook you up with an order if given well in advance. (I won’t speculate at the cost… but gilded they be.)