Saturday, May 14, 2005


The Sunday Special: Oysters

The Sydney Morning Herald catches up with Cod author Mark Kurlansky and finds him, among other things, having just completed a book on... oysters.

He has also just finished The Big Oyster, about the history of oysters in New York. Is he bravely revisiting the "biography of things" genre? "It's a very different kind of book. It's very tightly focused on one place. New York harbour used to be full of oysters. Oysters were an intrinsic, fundamental part of New York culture. Dickens and Thackeray and everybody who wrote about New York in the 19th century wrote about oysters. Then [the industry] was destroyed by pollution."

I'd never thought of this before, but he's right; when reading restaurant scenes in fiction and nonfiction alike from the 1800s, it's striking how frequently oysters show up. It was a fairly common menu item then. It would be interesting to track the change of typical menus in Manhattan, say, over the last century -- not just what tastes changed, but also why they changed -- and whether outside forces like long-forgotten fad diets, commodity price fluctuations, or the waxing and waning of certain species have been been fossilized as what we unthinkingly imagine to be typical menu items.

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