The “star” of the shellfish world, the oyster has seesawed between serving as a sustenance food and a delicacy – sometimes balancing both roles at the same time. This was indeed the case in nineteenth century America when oysters were the focal point of fancy dinners yet also enjoyed by the common man served up by street vendors (as depicted in the accompanying photo) and in oyster bars, often situated in tucked away basement locations. These were not forbidden or illegal like alcohol-serving speakeasies during Prohibition, but the underground locates gave them a somewhat illicit and enticing feel. Not really surprising for a food that is considered the most desirable of all things edible from the sea and has often had aphrodisiac qualities attached to it. In fact, the late nineteenth century produced two scandalous pornographic magazines, The Oyster and The Pearl.
In the Philadelphia area, social gatherings with menus that revolved around oysters became extremely popular in the nineteenth century. These included oyster roasts at the Jersey shore, with oysters nestled inside covered pans and placed in the coals of huge fires built out of driftwood. Oyster roasts also took place indoors, with hosts simply popping trays of whole oysters still in the shell into the oven. Banquet dinners with multiple courses - each featuring a different oyster preparation - was a similar iteration.
Oysters were such an integral part of New York’s dining scene that until the end of the nineteenth century every formal dinner started with them. The menus of Delmonico chef Charles Ranhofer always listed oysters as a first course, and the restaurant’s legendary patron Diamond Jim Brady was said to pop them in his mouth like candy before he even thought about choosing an appetizer.
While some folks insist the oyster is best simply served up raw on a half shell, clever chefs have delighted in coming up with numerous ways to showcase oysters over the years – fried, baked, frittered, featured in soups, bisques and gumbo, swimming in a rich sauce such as Oysters Rockefeller, Oysters à la Foch – even as flavorings for items ranging from a dressing for poultry (still a highlight on many Thanksgiving tables) and even catsup. Many nineteenth century cookbooks devoted pages and pages to oyster recipes.
However, even with all these delicious and interesting preparations, raw oysters were still the nineteenth century favorite, with presentation and accompaniments as important as the oysters themselves. Serving them in blocks or boats of ice was extremely fashionable, especially later in the century as refrigeration methods improved, but still no easy task – from obtaining huge blocks of ice, to shaping it, and then keeping it cold. The French style was to leave the upper shell on when serving, according to the celebrated Pierre Blot, a French chef, cookbook writer and cooking school instructor who immigrated to the United States in 1855.
Philadelphians also adored oyster fritters – a specialty introduced by Italian-born restaurateur Minico Finelli. Visitors to Philadelphia flocked to his restaurant to enjoy a taste of this famous dish. Finelli fried the oysters in the olive oil of his native Italy, and used a light hand in coating them, producing a deliciously delicate product that was not at all heavy or greasy.
So for those who fancy all things oyster—where do the tastiest, juiciest, biggest oysters come from? Oyster-producing areas around the world have all proclaimed that their oysters are “the best,” and continue to vie for this claim. Where and how an oyster is grown makes all the difference—not unlike fine wine. Water temperature, salinity, and mineral content, as well as the oyster’s diet, all affect its flavor. For example, although Atlantic coast oysters are all from the same family, they vary in size, shape, color and taste. Since oysters grow faster in warmer water, they tend to be larger in size in more temperate locations, particularly if left alone to grow. Conversely, colder water tends to produce oysters that enthusiasts call more flavorful and critics label as too briny. As a result, Northerners feel Southern oysters are large and flavorless and Southerners think Northern varieties are small and harsh.
This strong bias toward local oysters has provided friendly banter up and down the East Coast for hundreds for years. Of all the American oysters, M. F. K. Fisher gave those from Long Island Sound the highest marks, although she also gave Chincoteagues and Delaware Bay oysters a rating of “very good.” She felt oysters from Southern U.S. waters were “less interesting served in the shell, and almost cry out for such delicacies as horseradish or even cooking.”
For Philadelphia residents, the Delaware Bay was the perfect oyster’s only home—a concept inconceivable to New Yorkers, who insisted the only first-rate oysters were caught in their waters. In the nineteenth century, if you were from the New York area you probably would have cited Blue Point oysters from the Long Island coast as the finest on the market, but if you were from Philadelphia, it would have been Morris River Coves from the Delaware Bay. In all actuality, they probably didn’t taste all that different since the two cities are only about a hundred miles apart; although the Blue Points may have been saltier since Morris River Coves typically came from more brackish water. Yet, these strong regional preferences prevailed throughout the Victorian era.
Delaware Bay oysters were a highlight on restaurant menus until the late 1950s, when a deadly parasite called MSX wiped out much of the population in a very short period of time. As a result, the region’s oyster industry collapsed almost overnight. The oyster seedbeds began to gradually recover in the 1960s and 1970s as native oysters developed some resistance to MSX through natural selection, and breeding research conducted by the Rutgers University Haskin Shellfish Research Laboratory began to produce disease resistant varieties. Then in 1990 another parasitic disease called Dermo spread through much of the eastern Delaware Bay, destroying many planted and seed oysters.
The MSX and Dermo epidemics have been a crushing blow to the Delaware Bay oyster population. To make a bad situation worse, a myriad of other factors continue to plague the region: pollution, water salinity changes that come along with global warming, government warnings on oyster consumption, other recurring diseases, environmental laws and even boat insurance. Although the region’s oyster industry will likely never reach such epic proportions again, there are encouraging signs of growth, including measures such as putting a cap on the number of oysters than can be harvested each season to help the stocks replenish and grow, a "shell recycling" program to release millions of clean shells (a byproduct of clam processing) into the bay for baby oysters to latch onto, and state assistance for private oyster producers. As a result, oyster experts are optimistic that these same oysters enjoyed in
the nineteenth century will continue to be available for generations to come.
Sources: Carolyn Foote Edelmann, “Pirates, Ghosts, and Oysters,” U.S. 1 Newspaper, August 24, 2005; “History of the Eastern Oyster” Fact Sheet - Partnership for the Delaware Estuary, Feb. 2002; The Oyster Epicure: A Collation of Authorities on the Gastronomy and Dietetics of the Oyster, 1883, p.25; Joan Reardon, Oysters: A Culinary Celebration, 2000, p, 237; M.F.K. Fisher, Consider the Oyster, 1941, p. 45; James Parkinson, American Dishes at the Centennial, 1874, p. 10; Mark Kurlansky, The Big Oyster, 2006, pp. 47-48; Susan Williams, Savory Suppers and Fashionable Feasts, 1996, pp. 234-35; Arthur Schwartz, Arthur Schwartz’s New York City Food, 2008, p. 30; Cornelius Weygandt, Philadelphia Folks: Ways and Institutions in and About the Quaker City, 1938, pp. 140, 145; Rebecca Stott, Oyster, Reaktion Books, 2004, 9