Archive for the ‘oysters’ Category

I finally read The Big Oyster by Mark Kurlansky, who’s perhaps better known for his books Cod and Salt, neither of which I’ve read, as it turns out. The Big Oyster, however, I can recommend if you’re a lover of oysters and/or a lover of New York. I have a complicated relationship with New York, which I think might have actually enhanced my reading experience, because this book catches New York at its ups and downs.


A couple of things I thought about while reading this book:

1. It BLOWS MY MIND to think of a New York in which people could eat things out of the estuary. It also blows my mind to think that when people thought of New York back then, they might have immediately thought of oysters. Of course I understand that cities evolve, but imagining New York as anything other than the monolith it is today is really tough.

2. I do believe this book tips its hat quite a bit to Consider the Oyster, given the number of old recipes reprinted throughout.

3. I learned why baby oysters are called spats! Oystermen referrred to the mating process of oysters as “spitting.” therefore baby oysters had been “spat.” Delightful!

4. It’s amazing just how fast the overfishing started. In the oyster shell middens left behind by the native folks who lived on Manhattan, a decrease in shell size can be observed from the bottoms of the piles to the top. Oyster gathering had to be regulated practically as soon as it began by settlers. Foresight: we humans don’t often have it.

5. As someone who makes lots of things with my hands, I appreciate when some processes defy mechanization. Just as any goods made of wool start with some human being literally wrestling a sheep in order to shear it, there really isn’t a better way to shuck an oyster than by hand, with a knife.

6. The book is ultimatley quite depressing, naturally, given the state of wild oysters (that state is functionally extinct), but all hope isn’t lost and although we royally screwed up the harbor for a long time, it’s in a much better state now than it has been in an extremely long time, and more oyster reefs will only help with that.

By happenstance, the weekend before I read this book, I went to The Farmers’ Museum in Cooperstown, NY. Don’t worry; I went to the Hall of Fame too. Naturally, I was there to see this sort of thing:


But mollusks are really never very far away. They’re one of the ways to ride the carousel:


(That’s an action shot taken from the frog I was riding). And oysters were prominently featured in the exhibition about foods of New York. As a native New Yorker, I have to feel pretty proud that my state has contributed such amazing delicacies as jello and potato chips to the culinary lexicon, and it was pretty neat to see some oyster memorabilia, all of which made more sense after reading The Big Oyster.


Another super fun thing about the Farmers’ Museum is that it plays host to one of the greatest of all hoaxes, The Cardiff Giant. What a great piece of humbug history!

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Considering the Oyster

Here’s an odd thing about me: I like watching cooking shows even though they’re so rarely vegetarian friendly. Top Chef, America’s Test Kitchen, Good Eats, good times! I don’t tend to read a lot of food writing (though I do enjoy me some Julia Child), but I did recently read Consider the Oyster by MFK Fisher, and I heartily recommend it. It was published in 1941, and while I confess to knowing little about the history of food writing, it seems ahead of its time. Her writing is remarkably fresh and contemporary to me, or maybe I’m stuck in a time warp. Both are plausible.

Consider the Oyster is a book of essays about oysters, with a little bit of natural history and a bunch of recipes. Everything is injected with MFK Fisher’s wit and strong opinions. It’s quirky and delightful and you should read it if you haven’t yet (It’ll take you all of an hour.). I think the parts where it feels not so fresh are in the recipes, because I don’t imagine anything that’s not bread but called a “loaf” is a part of the current culinary lexicon. Again, I could be totally wrong about that and Thomas Keller could have meatloaf on his menu as I’m writing this. He does, interestingly, always have the same oyster dish on his menu: Oysters and Pearls.

(photo: devlyn)

Now regarding the eating of oysters, last year we were told that vegans should consider eating them in this Slate article. To decide whether this a well thought-out argument or a justification from a guilt-ridden former vegan is an exercise left to the reader. The article is quite compelling to me, but I think I simply like mollusks too much to eat them.

Now Forbes is telling us that oysters are the new sushi. Faux trend articles are an actual trend, but color me intrigued. If people want to swap out tuna for oysters, OK by me!

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Consider the Oyster

You may have seen the news earlier this year, and I was remiss in not talking about it when it was happening, but wild oysters are functionally extinct. This news, of course, is terribly depressing.

I’m a New Yorker, and New Yorkers have a history with oysters. In fact, there’s a whole book about the relationship between NYC and oysters. They thrived here, they fed us, now they’re decimated. But as is the way of New Yorkers, we are hustlers and we don’t give up on things easily.

A recent TED talk gives some big ideas regarding oysters and rehabilitating the malodorous superfund site also known as the Gowanus Canal. Incidentally, if you’re ever in Brooklyn and looking to get a beer, the hilariously named Gowanus Yacht Club is a great place to go. This video is well worth watching. It’s an awesome vision into the not-too-distant future, and it’s not made of space-age materials and mythical power sources; they knitted some yarn and built reefs for oysters, in turn cleaning up the waterway, increasing biodiverity, and building shelter from waves. Refreshingly doable.

So doable, in fact, that it’s happening on a smaller scale right now. The River Project is inviting citizens to become oyster gardeners in the Hudson. If I can figure out how to find a safe spot on the stretch of Hudson nearest to me, you can bet I will be farming some oysters!

Perhaps my favorite thing I learned from the video is that baby oysters are called spats. Here’s what spats look like.
Oyster Hatchery, Grand Isle, LA 07.19.07 086
(photo: Lousiana Sea Grant College Program)
These of course aren’t the only spats you can see in and around New York. Come for the St. Patrick’s Day parade and you can see some of these:
Leatherneck Spats
(photo: Alan Strakey)

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Maybe I’m a tourist in my own city, but I always jump at the opportunity to bring visitors to certain places I love– the zoo, the Met, the Natural History Museum, etc. This weekend included both the Bronx Zoo and the Met. The zoo was fantastic– no mollusks, as usual, but excellent sightings of some of my favorite animals who tend to be unconscious when I’m there: the slow loris and the red panda. Super adorable.

Then there was the Met. I love visiting the roof exhibition at the Met in the summer, because there’s a great skyline view over the park, and it’s just a cool place for an installation. This year is Big BambĂș. This was a really fun installation. The summer installation breathes some life and energy into the Met, which can get a little laden down in classics and antiquities for me, as much as I do love that stuff to. Big BambĂș reminded me of the City Museum in St. Louis, one of the best and most fun museums I’ve ever been to, and no doubt the most dangerous.

It’s a big bamboo structure.
Lashed together.
bamboo path & ties
There are paths through it into the upper reaches.
Big Bambu
But it also has this wild, birdsnest-like look to it.
big bambu
(photos there are from asterix611, marc dalio, Garrett Ziegler, and Rob Zand, respectively)

Because I do keep my eye out for these things, I did spot some mollusks in the art at the Met. First, this is a detail of a piece by Dali, that has some little shells on some sort of blob. Surreal!

Here’s the whole painting, The Accommodations of Desire.

Then in the European Paintings wing, there was this still life with oysters by Willem Claesz Heda.

Speaking of opulent meals, that evening was dinner at wd-50. What a weird, interesting meal! I started off with a cocktail that tasted exactly like Juicy Fruit gum and it was all fun and surprising tastes and textures from there. I want to go back for the 5 course dessert tasting. We also got a tour of the kitchen and met the chef, so it was a special evening. No mollusks were consumed by anyone at my table. This octopus in the bathroom seemed pleased about that. Or maybe surprised.

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Weekly link roundup time!

1. What are you doing this weekend? Watching Sharktopus I hope!

I was going to embed the trailer, but in fact it looks so godawful I thought better of it. I’ll hold out for Bearsharktopus.

2. Purdue researchers working on what makes oysters stick together. It seems that oysters are producing a “glue” that’s 90% calcium carbonate and 10% protein, as opposed to the byssal threads other mollusks use that are predominantly protein.

3. I’m fairly obsessed with this new species of nudibranch that makes little egg doilies. It’s like the nudibranch version of me! I have been known to make a doily or two in my day.

4. I don’t know if you’ve been following the saga of the Inland Octopus mural, but residents of Walla Walla, WA are taking action to make sure the mural stays. I hope it does. Look how cute!

Inland Octopus Mural
(photo: Josh Westbrook)

5. Also, if you want your baby to be the coolest hippie baby ever, Inland Octopus sells hands down the coolest tie dye clothing I have ever ever seen. Done by Leslie at Cosmic Farmhouse.

6. This is an exciting weekend for me. My roommate from my San Francisco years is in town, and we are basically going to eat our way across town. Our first stop, and probably most auspicious, is wd-50, a restaurant specializing in molecular gastronomy. There are also a fair number of mollusks on the menu. I don’t eat animals in general and cephalopods in particular, but they sure do cook up pretty.

Cuttlefish, cashew, rootbeer, watercress

Tomatillo-pine gazpacho, soybean falafel, octopus confit

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