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Before New York City was the Big Apple, it could have been called the Big Oyster. Now award-winning author Mark Kurlansky tells the remarkable story of New York by following the trajectory of one of its most fascinating inhabitants the oyster, whose influence on the great metropolis remains unparalleled.
For centuries New York was famous for its oysters, which until the early 1900s played such a dominant a role in the city s economy, gastronomy, and ecology that the abundant bivalves were Gotham s most celebrated export, a staple food for the wealthy, the poor, and tourists alike, and the primary natural defense against pollution for the city s congested waterways.
Filled with cultural, historical, and culinary insight along with historic recipes, maps, drawings, and photos this dynamic narrative sweeps readers from the island hunting ground of the Lenape Indians to the death of the oyster beds and the rise of America s environmentalist movement, from the oyster cellars of the rough-and-tumble Five Points slums to Manhattan s Gilded Age dining chambers.
Kurlansky brings characters vividly to life while recounting dramatic incidents that changed the course of New York history. Here are the stories behind Peter Stuyvesant s peg leg and Robert Fulton s Folly ; the oyster merchant and pioneering African American leader Thomas Downing; the birth of the business lunch at Delmonico s; early feminist Fanny Fern, one of the highest-paid newspaper writers in the city; even Diamond Jim Brady, who we discover was not the gourmand of popular legend.
With The Big Oyster, Mark Kurlansky serves up history at its most engrossing, entertaining, and delicious.
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Mark Kurlansky is the New York Times bestselling and James A. Beard Award winning author of Cod: A Biography of the Fish That Changed the World, Salt: A World History, 1968: The Year That Rocked the World, and The Basque History of the World, as well as Boogaloo on 2nd Avenue (his debut novel), and several other books. He lives in New York City.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
A Molluscular Life
Obviously, if you don’t love life, you can’t enjoy an oyster.
—Eleanor Clark, The Oysters of Locmariaquer, 1959
In 1609, when Henry Hudson, a British explorer employed by the Dutch, sailed into New York Harbor on his eighty-five-foot ship, Halve Maen, with a half-British, half-Dutch crew of sixteen, he found the same thing Mackay would two and a half centuries later—a local population with the habit of feasting on excellent New York Harbor oysters.
Hudson was a seventeenth-century man in search of a fifteenth-century dream. His employer, Holland, would soon be in its golden age, offering the world Rembrandt, the microscope, and the stock exchange, but not, as Hudson and his sponsors had hoped, a river through North America leading to China.
A water route to Chinese trade replacing the long, arduous Silk Road was a great dream of the Renaissance. The only alternative ever found was in 1499 when Vasco da Gama sailed from Portugal and went around Africa to the Indian Ocean. All of the westward voyages of exploration had ended in failure, with endless landmasses standing in the way between Europe and China. Cabot was stopped by Canada in the north, Verrazano was stopped by the United States farther south, Columbus by Central America in the middle, and Magellan showed that it was a hopelessly long way around South America to the south. Only one idea still held any possibility and that was a passage through arctic waters.
And so Hudson was essentially an arctic explorer. In fact, he was a failed arctic explorer. On his first voyage for the British he sailed straight north, attempting to travel beyond the ice and down the other side of the globe. The plan was geographically astute but meteorologically absurd and he was stopped by ice. At the point he could go no farther, his seventy-foot wooden vessel was only six hundred miles short of Robert E. Peary’s 1909 achievement, reaching the North Pole. His second voyage, heading northeast over Russia, was also stopped by ice. At this point his British sponsor, the Muscovy Company, dropped him.
A new idea came along. In the early seventeenth century, Captain John Smith, the ruggedly handsome legendary adventurer famous for his conquests both military and sexual, was the great promoter of European settlement in North America. He charted the coastline, reported on his findings, and pitched North America to any Englishman who would listen. He was to play a role in the promoting of Britain’s two leading North American colonies, Virginia and Massachusetts. Hudson knew Smith and they corresponded in 1608, by which time four-fifths of Smith’s 1607 Virginia settlers had already died. There was a growing belief that North America was uninhabitable in the winter. But Smith’s contagious enthusiasm never faltered. Not only did he believe in North American settlement—this entire debate taking place as if no one was already living there—but his maps and letters to Hudson promoted an alternative to the theory that a water route to China could be found north of Canada—the so-called Northwest Passage. Smith’s theory was that somewhere north of Virginia a major river connected the Atlantic to the Sea of Cathay.
This is a case of people hearing only what they want to hear. Smith’s Chinese sea was presumably the Pacific Ocean, but rivers are not known to flow from one sea to another. Smith’s theory was based on statements from northern tribes who trapped for fur. They talked of an ocean that could be reached from a river. They probably said nothing about Cathay, China, which was an obsession of Europeans, not North Americans. It seems likely that the North Americans were talking about how they could travel up the Hudson and follow the Mohawk tributary and with a short land portage—for a canoe—arrive at the Great Lakes. Standing on the shore of Lake Erie, one can have the impression of being on the coast of a vast sea. Furthermore, the currents of the Hudson are so multidirectional, the salty ocean water travels so far inland, that according to Indian legend, the first inhabitants came to the Hudson in search of a river that ran two ways, as though it flowed into seas at both ends. Whether such early Indian explorers existed, the Europeans came looking for exactly that.
Hudson, the out-of-work explorer, had something to sell: a possible new passage to China. The Muscovy Company had listened and voted against the project. But Britain’s new and fast-growing competitor, Holland, was interested. The Vernenigde Oostindische Compagnie, or VOC, known in English as the Dutch East India Company, hired him. The Dutch were not interested in new theories from John Smith or Henry Hudson. They hired Hudson to search for the northeastern passage, a route through the ice floes north of Russia. Hudson had no faith in this northeastern theory, but the VOC gave him a commission with a new ship, and so he took it and sailed north until well out of the view of Dutchmen. Then he picked up a westerly gale and crossed the Atlantic, thousands of miles in the opposite direction of his orders, and reached the North American coast off Newfoundland.
More than a century after John Cabot’s voyage, this was a well-known route. Hudson then followed the coastline south to Cape Hatteras and the mouth of the Chesapeake within miles of his friend Smith at Jamestown but, sailing in a Dutch vessel, did not visit the British settlement. Perhaps he needed to locate Smith’s Jamestown to find his bearing on Smith’s maps. Then he began exploring the coastline for a river to China.
In this search he became the first European to enter Delaware Bay. But seeing the shallow waters, shoals, and bars at the mouth of the Delaware, Hudson felt certain that this was not a river great enough to cut through North America to China. He continued on, viewing the forest lands of an unknown continent off the port side, seemingly uninhabited, with only an occasional bird chirp for counterpoint to the rolling surf on sandy beaches and the creaks in the Half Moon’s rigging.
Then, rounding a flat, sandy, narrow peninsula, today accurately labeled Sandy Hook, Hudson and his men, almost as if falling through a keyhole, found themselves in another world. The wide expanse of water, one hundred square miles, lay flat, sheltered by the bluffs of Staten Island and the rolling hills of Brooklyn. Sandy Hook on the port and the shoals of Rockaway Peninsula on the starboard, an ideal barrier furnished with several channels, protected the opening. When they looked into the water, they could see large fish following them.
This was the place. From all directions they saw rivers pouring into the bay. If there were a chasm in the heart of North America opening up a waterway all the way to China, this is what it would look like.
Hudson identified three “great rivers.” They were probably Raritan Bay, which separates New Jersey and Staten Island, the opening to the Upper Harbor, and the Rockaway Inlet on the Brooklyn–Queens shore of Long Island. He had not yet sailed through the narrow opening between Staten Island and Brooklyn—not yet seen the Upper Bay, the Hudson River, the Harlem River, and the East River that connects with Long Island Sound. He had not yet seen the lush, green, rocky island of ponds and streams in the middle of the estuary.
Hudson sent a landing party ashore on Staten Island. It was late summer and the plum trees and grapevines were bearing fruit. Immediately upon landing, as though Hudson’s crew had been expected, as though invited, people dressed in animal skins appeared to welcome them. These people in animal skins saw that the leader of the people who arrived in the floating house wore a red coat that sparkled with gold lace.
In what would become a New York tradition, commerce instantly began. The Europeans in red had tools, while the skin-clad Americans offered hemp, beans, and a local delicacy—oysters. The Europeans thought they were getting much better value than they were giving, but the Americans may have thought the same thing.
Hudson and his men had no idea with whom they were trading. They reported that the people in skins were friendly and polite but not to be trusted. These people the Europeans distrusted called their land Lenapehoking, the land of the Lenape. The Lenape thought they knew their visitors. They were a people they called in their language shouwunnock, which meant “Salty People.” The grandparents of the Lenape who saw Hudson may have seen an earlier Salty Person, the Italian, Giovanni da Verrazano, sailing the coast with his crew for Francis I, king of France, in 1524. Verrazano had chosen to moor his ship off Staten Island, farther up than Hudson, in the narrow opening that bears his name and where Staten Island is now connected to Brooklyn by a bridge. Verrazano could see the second interior bay with its wide rivers and well-placed island and described the bay as “a pleasant lake.” He named it Santa Margarita after the sister of his patron, Francis. “We passed up with our boat only into the said river, and saw the country very well peopled. The people are almost like unto the others, and clad with feathers of fowls of divers colors. They came toward us very cheerfully, making great shouts of admiration, showing us where we might come to land most safely with our boat.”
But soon shifting winds forced the Europeans, with great reluctance, to return to their ship and sail on. This was probably the first sighting of Salty People by the inhabitants of the harbor, although their grandparents may also hav...
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Book Description Amereon Ltd, 2006. Hardcover. Condition: Brand New. 336 pages. 8.30x5.40x0.90 inches. In Stock. Seller Inventory # zk0848833112
Book Description Amereon Ltd, 2006. Condition: New. book. Seller Inventory # M0848833112
Book Description Amereon Ltd, 2006. Hardcover. Condition: New. Never used!. Seller Inventory # P110848833112