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The Big Oyster: History on the Half Shell    by Mark Kurlansky order for
Big Oyster
by Mark Kurlansky
Order:  USA  Can
Ballantine, 2006 (2006)
Hardcover, CD

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* * *   Reviewed by Tim Davis

Almost everyone knows that New York City is also called The Big Apple. Perhaps - if Mark Kurlansky's marvelous new book gets the wide-spread attention and appreciation it very much deserves - we ought to consider changing the city's nickname to 'The Big Oyster.'

Kurlansky serves up top-notch prose and a feast of succulent details with an imaginative flair in The Big Oyster as he tells the fascinating history of New York by focusing on one of its most influential and important residents: the wonderfully famous and exquisitely complicated crassostrea virginicus - the oyster.

It will surprise many readers that NYC was, for centuries, internationally famous for its oysters, and - by devouring Kurlansky's entertaining history of NYC and its love affair with the crassostrea virginicus - readers now have the opportunity to savor thousands of intriguing facts. For example:

Once upon a time in New York, oyster stands were as popular as hot dog vendors are today.

By 1860, more than 12 millions oysters were sold in New York markets annually - New York was the oyster trading center of the world.

Oysters in 19th century New York were so cheap that oyster restaurants would offer what they called the Canal Street Plan which was all you could eat oysters on the half shell for six cents.

A single oyster can move 20-50 gallons of seawater through its gill per day. The original oyster population of New York Harbor was capable of filtering all of the water in the harbor in a matter of days.

Public health officials began to understand that oysters, because they feed by filtering water, are a reflection of the quality of the water in which they live. They can be used to measure pollutants such as DDT and have been used to measure radiation.

Admittedly, gulping down a dozen oysters on the half shell does not have universal appeal, and I suppose that if anyone thinks very much about the oyster's homely appearance - both outside and inside the shell - then it is easy to appreciate the brilliant satirist Jonathan Swift who 'famously commented on the courage of the unknown original gourmet who first popped a raw oyster into his or her mouth.' Notwithstanding that kind of original courage - which I replicated myself several decades ago at an oyster bar on the Gulf coast of northwest Florida - it remains 'hard to explain to those who don't do it by what strange impulse humans take these primitive creatures with their tiny hearts pounding yes, the freshly shucked raw oyster when it is consumed is, in fact, a live oyster and slide them down their throats.'

Eating oysters certainly has been something New Yorkers have been doing with passion for centuries. In fact, the 'history of New York oysters is a history of New York itself - its wealth, its strength, its excitement, its greed, its thoughtlessness, its destructiveness, its blindness and - as any New Yorker will tell you - its filth ... the trashing of New York' and its great waterways. In fact, 'New Yorkers have lost their oyster, ... and The Big Oyster is the story of how it happened.'

Filled with fascinating historical, cultural, social, and scientific details (and even garnished with a wonderful sampling of recipes), The Big Oyster is a first-rate banquet for gourmands and history buffs. Don't miss it!

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