For thousands of years the Thames provided London’s inhabitants with a plentiful supply and variety of fish. Until the 1820s locally caught fish was the city’s staple diet. Subsequent pollution of the river drove many professional fishermen and their families into financial ruin because of the collapse of fish populations.
Up until the twentieth century New York Harbor oysters reigned as the quintessential New York food long before pizza, pretzels, bagels, or hot dogs took their place. The metropolis once was a Big Oyster. There too, reckless management of the marine environment led to the obliteration of a huge natural resource.
Dirty Father Thames
Early London loved fresh fish. There was an abundant catch in the River Thames, including trout, salmon and eel, and nearer the estuary there were oysters, shrimps and cockles. Varieties of fish were vended by street merchants known as “costermongers.” These itinerant traders had been a noisy feature of London life since the eleventh century as they cried their trade lines to attract customers. They sold their products in small quantities around the streets and alleyways, at first from baskets, then progressing to barrows and stalls.
By the 1850s, London was the world’s most crowded city with crippling problems of pollution and poverty. Rapid population growth strained the city’s public services, in particular its water supply, waste disposal and sewage systems. The housing crisis was severe. The River Thames became a giant sewer overflowing with human waste, dead animals, and toxic raw materials from riverside factories. Keeping a densely packed population nourished and free from disease was a mammoth challenge to the authorities.
A cartoon in Punch Magazine of October 7, 1848, depicted “Dirty Father Thames” as a vagrant and the river as a repository of refuse and waste. A poem: “Filthy river, filthy river … What art thou but one vast gutter” accompanied the cartoon. The Thames, once the lifeblood of the city, was declared biologically dead. Although a vital resource had been lost through the thoughtless exploitation of a delicate habitat, an alternative supply soon became available.
Battered deep-fried fish (pescado frito) was a legacy of Iberian Marranos who had fled persecution in their home countries and settled in London. Nominal Christians, they were – in secret – practicing Jews who fried fish on Friday and ate it cold on the Sabbath when forbidden to cook. When Thomas Jefferson visited the capital he reported eating ‘fried fish in the Jewish fashion’. Charles Dickens in Oliver Twist (1837) referred to a “fried fish warehouse” where baked potatoes were served alongside fish. High grain prices all over Europe had opened the way to a potato culture. Bread was substituted by spuds; beer replaced by gin. Fish & chips became food for the poor.
The Industrial Revolution helped grow the trade. The launching of steam-trawlers made white fish from the North Sea (cod in particular) widely available and affordable thanks to a network of railways connecting fishing ports and cities. London no longer needed the Thames to feed its population. The river and its main tributaries were neglected. Pollution proliferated.
Passion for Oysters
Having overrun England, the Romans brought with them a taste for shellfish. They developed a rich native oyster culture. When the Saxons invaded after the Romans had left, the oyster lost its status as a delicacy and its cultivation was abandoned. It would take centuries for the oyster to regain its reputation.
By the 1400s oysters were enjoyed by the rich and poor alike (cooked in its own juices with ale and pepper). They were eaten informally in taverns or straight from the barrel at street stalls. Small oysters were slurped down raw, while larger ones were cooked in stews mixed with pork or mutton, or stuffed inside fowl and roasted. In his diary, Samuel Pepys mentions his delight of consuming oysters time and again, often swallowing them at breakfast.
The liberal consumption of oysters continued into Victorian times, while pickled oysters were a regular food of the poor in London. In the words of Sam Weller in Pickwick Papers, Charles Dickens’s first novel (1836): “Poverty and oysters always seem to go together.”
By the middle of the nineteenth century, all along the coast oysters were dredged in huge numbers by fleets of smacks (single-masted fishing boats). Mersea Island oysters were the most desirable. Once barrelled up, they were sent from Essex to London over land. Massive supplies made them cheap and available to all. Ever-growing demands from the all-consuming metropolis led to many of the beds being depleted.
Careless production combined with pollution and natural sedimentation resulted in diminishing harvests and made oysters rare. By the latter half of the Victorian era native habitats were exhausted. As a consequence of this man-made disaster, prices rose to such an extent that only the wealthy could afford to put oysters on the table. A once thriving business soon declined.
Oyster Island & Pearl Street
It was a misty morning when on September 3rd, 1609, Henry Hudson sailed the Halve Maen (Half Moon) up the river that now bears his name on behalf of the Dutch East India Company (VOC). He and his Anglo-Dutch crew entered a brackish zone rich in nutrients with a shoreline of rocky shallows. Some 350 square miles of reefs stretched in all directions. It was a Paradise of Oysters that for a long period of time had fed the indigenous Lenape people.
Although familiar with oysters as a food source in their own regions, the type the sailors encountered in these unfamiliar waters were much larger than the ones they had consumed at home. Settlers named Ellis and Liberty Island “Little” and “Great Oyster Island” because of the sprawling beds surrounding them. For a time, New York Harbor oysters remained a seemingly inexhaustible resource. They offered affordable sustenance to an ever growing mass of people.
Discarded shells were traditionally stacked in refuge heaps (middens), but with increased consumption they were used to fertilize crops and pave streets. New York was built on oyster shells. To this day, stone structures such as Trinity Church at Wall Street and Broadway are held together with mortar made from shells ground into paste.
On the site of a large midden along the waterfront Dutch colonists built “Paerlstraat,” one of the first roads constructed in the fledgling New Amsterdam settlement. It has been suggested that Pearl Street earned its moniker because it was paved with oyster shells that glistened like pearls in the sun. The street was soon surrounded by taverns selling beer, liquor and – of course – oysters.
The housing boom in New York would spell danger to the oyster culture. In 1658, New Amsterdam’s Dutch Council already showed awareness of environmental damage by trying to limit and restrict harvests. In 1715 and 1719, the colonial government imposed similar measures in order to protect crucial food supplies to the city.
Downing’s Oyster House
By 1850, most major American towns boosted one or more oyster cellars, nearly always in the basement of the premises where it was easier to store ice. Street vending in poorer districts was part of New York’s food distribution system. Oysters were served at cheap eateries and some of the poorest New Yorkers had no other subsistence than (nutritious) oysters and bread. The rich however enjoyed consuming oysters in style.
Thomas Downing was born in 1791 in Chincoteague, Virginia, to parents who had been freed from slavery by planter John Downing once he had converted to Methodism. The couple took his surname and served as caretakers for the religious meeting house. Thomas was educated in the Methodist tradition. As a young man he left Virginia and traveled north to Philadelphia where he met and married Rebecca West. By 1819 the young couple had moved to New York. At first Thomas cultivated oyster beds on the Jersey Flats, but by 1825 he had purchased an eating establishment in the basement at 5 Broad Street, Manhattan.
Downing gradually expanded the business into other spaces on the block at the corner with Wall Street and ran an exclusive restaurant with dishes that appealed to the taste of the local business community. The menu at Downing’s Oyster House included scalloped oysters, oyster pie, fish with oyster sauce, and poultry stuffed with oysters.
Listed in the city directory an “oysterman,” Downing’s success as an African-American restaurateur was a rare story in pre-Civil War New York. During his visit to the city, Charles Dickens dropped by and praised New York’s “wonderful cookery of oysters.”
At the same time, assisted by his son George Downing, Thomas was active in the abolitionist movement. In 1836 he was a co-founder of New York’s United Anti-Slavery Society. When Tomas died on April 10, 1866, the city’s Chamber of Commerce closed for the day to pay its respect to this pioneering figure.
By the 1820s demand for oysters outpaced the supply from New York Harbor and merchants began to explore the oyster beds of the Great South Bay in Suffolk County. Overlooking the bay lies the small town of West Sayville. It was here that from the 1840s Dutch immigrants would engage in ‘oystering.’ These workers had acquired skills in their native region and brought these to Long Island. They transported their oysters to the city of New York on schooners until the construction of the Long Island Railroad reached West Sayville. Almost the entire population of the town was constituted of so-called baymen.
Among the earliest settlers was Jacob Ockers. Born in Bruinisse in Zeeland (to this day a center of oyster farming in the Netherlands), he became the town’s major employer. By the mid-nineteenth century Ockers had founded the Bluepoints Company, harvesting oysters and clams until the business closed in 2003. He became America’s largest individual oyster grower and shipper. The firm paid for skilled workers to migrate from the Low Countries and helped them settle in their new environment.
As European oyster beds declined, Long Island oysters were exported across the Atlantic to be served on dinner tables in London, Paris, and other European capitals. Queen Victoria directed that only Bluepoints oysters were to grace Buckingham Palace’s dining tables.
Pollution & Restoration
New Yorkers in the meantime kept demanding shellfish and oyster bars remained popular. In 1906, the menu at Walton’s Old Homestead Oyster and Chop House at Eighth Avenue offered forty-five different entries for oysters. When the subterranean Oyster Bar in Grand Central Terminal opened in 1913 Hudson oysters were still available – but not for much longer.
The rapid expansion of Manhattan led to sewage pollution while the shoreline was turned into piers. Landfills made oyster beds no longer sustainable. In 1927, the last of New York’s beds was closed because of toxicity. The Big Oyster had become contaminated.
The Bluepoints success story did not last either. Over harvesting crippled the industry. The hurricane that hit the region in 1938 was a serious blow. Extensive damage opened up new inlets from the Atlantic, creating conditions that were unfavorable to an oyster culture.
The restoration of an ecosystem demands more time and effort than its destruction. During the 1950s, there was barely any life in the water of Thames. It took decades of environmental campaigns before cleaning up started in earnest in order to prevent further decline. By 1974, the first salmon started returning to the river.
The original Hudson reefs offered habitats to hundreds of marine species. They also provided a natural defense barrier against storm surges and flooding. After Hurricane Sandy hit New York with devastating power in 2012, a series of concrete oyster walls were built near the southern shore of Staten Island. The Billion Oyster Project was initiated two years later aimed at restoring live oysters to New York Harbor and reviving the marine landscape. It was a worthy cause. Oysters after all are indigenous New Yorkers. They shaped the city’s history.
Illustrations, from above: The Cryes of the City of London, 1687, Plate 9: a female eel-monger (‘Buy my Dish of great Eels’) by Marcellus Laroon; cartoon from Punch Magazine, October 7th, 1848; original cover of Dickens’s [Boz] serialized Pickwick Papers, 1836; Pearl Street in the seventeenth century (NYPL digital collection); portrait of Thomas Downing; portrait of Jacob Ockers, the ‘Oyster King’; and A.R. Waud, Oyster Stands in Fulton Fish Market, 1870.