Sunday, March 20, 2016

Middens attest to when oysters were peanuts, with beer.

Photo credit: East Falls Historical Society (below).

To Google the words "oyster beer history" is to uncover thousands of references to oyster stout, the vast majority of them from recent beer-centric times.

There's nothing wrong with that, but it isn't the point. I'm not thinking about pairing oysters with stout, or using them is a direct, vestigial or apocryphal manner to brew stout. Rather, I'm thinking about oysters as daily food, and how local beer drinking culture came to be built around this framework --especially on America's eastern seaboard.

The Voluminous Shell Heaps Hidden in Plain Sight All Over NYC, by Natalie Zarrelli (Atlas Obscura)

 ... These huge, ancient heaps of shells are called oyster middens, and they’ve fascinated people for centuries. If you didn’t know better, the word “midden” might sound homey and adorable, like a lush green burrow for some fuzzy, ground-dwelling animal, but you’d be mistaken. A midden is an archaeological term for a pile of trash left by humans long gone, and oyster middens are some of the oldest and largest piles of intact garbage dating from after the late ice age.

More specifically, here is the view from Philadelphia.

When oysters were peanuts, by Steve Fillmore (East Falls Historical Society)

They sure loved their oysters at the Hohenadel Brewery on Indian Queen Lane. We found hundreds of shells at the site this morning, unearthed by a construction crew digging up the site of the old brewery for condominiums.

That many fresh oysters would be worth thousands of dollars today at an upscale center city restaurant, but in 19th century bars, oysters were the peanuts of the day. They were the cheap eats that kept customers coming back for beer ...

... In Philadelphia and its suburbs, oyster consumption averaged approximately 6 million oysters a week throughout the 1870s. Cookbooks from the time list more than 40 oyster recipes and neighborhood oyster bars were more prevalent than pizza places or coffeehouses are today. In fact, over 2,400 Philadelphia establishments (hotels, oyster houses, restaurants, and beer saloons) served oysters, in addition to 158 peddlers and curb-side stands.

New York City remains the locale closely associated with oysters and beer. Tedesco's description of a project to reintroduce oysters to the area draws from a book by Mark Kurlansky, whose topics have included salt, cod and early 20th-century food in addition to oysters.

A Billion Oysters Tell the History of New York, by Karen Tedesco (The Village Voice)

Picture yourself on a boat on the Hudson River: taking in the view, eating copious piles of wood-fire-roasted oysters, and swigging generous drafts of locally brewed beer. It might remind you of last weekend's party aboard a schooner in Lower Manhattan. It's also an apt description of a typical feast in seventeenth-century New York ...

 ... The waters of New York Harbor, with their fluctuating balance of salt and fresh waters, allowed oysters to thrive. As natural, living filters, the mollusks not only kept the estuary healthy and clean, but were an abundant delicacy, eaten with gusto by the Native American Lenape and colonial settlers alike. For thousands of years, oysters were plentiful in the brackish waters all around the land that became New York City; some ancient piles of shells, known as middens, date to 6950 B.C.

Over the centuries, oysters continued to play a huge part in New York's economy. According to Kurlansky, nineteenth-century New Yorkers "consumed as many as a million oysters a day," and they were shipped to far-flung aficionados in Chicago, San Francisco, Paris, and London. The New York oyster industry survived, somewhat miraculously, into the early twentieth century. Hundreds of years of raw sewage, industrial pollution, and large-scale dredging in the harbor contributed to the decline of oyster habitats, little by little, until they disappeared completely. In 1927, Kurlansky writes, "the last of the Raritan Bay beds was closed, marking the end of oystering in New York City."


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