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ORIGINS

Did you know? Oysters were a big deal.

by Colleen Slentz

When Henry Hudson first landed on Staten Island in 1609, he traded European tools with the natives for hemp, beans and oysters. The Lenapes, the natives who inhabited the land, consumed incredible amounts of oysters, and were known for the huge piles of oyster shells they left behind. It is estimated that when the Dutch first arrived in Manhattan, half of the world's oysters were living in the New York Harbor. In fact, it was hard for the Dutch to sell the oysters commercially because they were so plentiful.

In the 18th and 19th centuries, their cheapness meant they were a primary food source for the poor of the city, and street vendors sold oysters instead of hot dogs and pretzels. With increased trade opportunities created by the steamboat and the Erie Canal, oysters became a primary export of New York, and the city became known as the oyster capital of the world. In five weeks, New Yorkers consumed as many oysters as the English did in a year. The natural oyster supply began to wane, but they were now being "produced" in farms to meet demands. An article for the New York Times noted that, "during the year 1882, 5000 barrels a week were shipped to Europe and sold after they reached there. The English people have acquired a taste for American oysters and are obliged to admit their superiority over their natives." 1

With history so plentiful in oysters, you may well wonder why there are so few oyster bars in Manhattan. What happened? Over farming, pollution, and contamination. New York City is the most densely populated city in America, and a lot of people produce a lot of garbage. The city has struggled with what to do with its garbage for centuries, and a lot of it has ended up in the river. This sewage, along with metal contaminants and over-farming, means the New York oyster is all but lost.

Endnotes

1. Kurlansky, 231

Bibliography

Mark Kurlansky. The Big Oyster: History on the Half Shell. FINISH

Image: Oysters found by the U.S. Geological Survey in the New York area.

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