Wednesday, October 1, 2014


Copyrighted 1934 by The Union News Company, N.Y.
Here, “way out west” as our down-east fathers thought, by express (“re-iced” as it said on the box) they came, those FirePlace oysters—big of shell, fat to fullness, firm yet tender, just waiting to be opened! And with the Long Island oyster-knife that we keep handy, opened they were and devoured!

“A well know edible bivalve mollusk” (oysters virginca) found along the Atlantic and Gulf Coast of North America,” says the dictionary. Another kind is found on the Pacific Coast and a gold digger (of the forty-niner kind) who went to the golden state wrote that they were “scarce and small.” John Smith who skirted our coast in 1612 found “creuises (whatever they are), oysters, cockles, and mussels.” The Plymouth laws in 1661 inacted “five shillings shall bee payed to the cuntrey for euery barrel of oysters that is karried out of the government.” (Five shillings translated into our value might mean as much as $10.00.)

The oyster appears in many metaphorical expressions, for example, Knickerbocker’s History has “Every place was shut as tight as an oyster.” Persons have been known to enjoy themselves “like and oyster in the mud.” “Dumb as an oyster” appears in our literature and Carl Sandburg quotes a sunburned Westerner as saying, “You ain’t got the sense God gave an oyster.”

And it’s an old time business. Ben Franklin in 1726 has “oyster merchants fetch them from other places.” Narragansett had a governor in 1777 who was an “oyster-pickler.” “Oyster-venders,” “oyster-planters,” “oyster-traders,” “oyster-men,” “oyster-openers,” “oyster-gatherers,” “oyster-pirates,” and “oyster-merchants,” have appeared all up and down the East Coast all through the years.

In 1761, Conner in his diary says, “We anchored at Southold harbor by oyster ponds on Long Island,” and the Huntington town records (1857) this—“over and across the cove to the old oyster pond dam.”

Recipes for oyster pies, oyster patties, oyster soup, oyster stew, oyster currie, oyster gumbo, and oyster loaves appear in newspapers and cookbooks all across the last hundred years.

There was an oyster war in 1654 between the New Yorkers and the Jerseyites. (That latter were called clam diggers.) The New York Tribune of December 20th, 1861, records the re-opening of the oyster trade and related the difficulties of the oyster business occasioned by the War between the States. Oyster fisheries, oyster packing-houses, oyster canneries, oyster traffic, oyster laws, and oyster commissions are mentioned.

A whole fleet of oyster gathering boats appear, not only a plain “oyster boat” and the ungainly “oyster scow,” but “oyster schooners,” “oyster pinkies,” “oyster pungies,” and even an “oyster canoe” was used for tonging in Chesapeake Bay.

In Harper’s Magazine of 1882, we read that “the ship was both a fruiter and an oyster boat prosecuting these callings at different seasons,” so that the Century Dictionary definition of an oyster-boat as “a shucking house constructed on a raft” would not appear to be entirely correct.

General Putnam in the Revolution had authority to commission oyster boats for privateering and in the War of 1812 some were so employed.

“Oyster clubs,” “oyster suppers,” “oyster parties,” “oyster banquets,” as well as “oyster roasts,” are recorded.

Nichols in his account of “American Life” (1664) says that “gentlemen living upon the rivers, ponds, and inlets in the vicinity of New York have their oyster plantations as regularly as their gardens.” Scribner’s Monthly (1870) speaks of “oyster farms” and another writer in 1888 speaks of an “oyster field supplying a bounteous repast.” The “oysterman” appears in New York in 1755 and “he could clear eight to ten shillings a day.”

Oysters are sold in “cellars,” “houses,” “depots,” at “stands,” and in “shops.” In 1875, the Chicago Tribune on the fifth day of September records that “Wilson’s is decidedly the most handy and convenient oyster-parlor in the city.” George Ade in his fables frequents an “oyster bay.” The hang-out of a certain thief was an “oyster shanty,” and the “oyster bar” is still with us. “Oyster cellars” did not at first include gentlemen among their visitors” (Watson’s Philosophy 1830).

Oyster lime, obtained from the shells, is an ingredient of many plastered walls in colonial and later houses. “Wonder Working Providence” (1654) speaks of, “the country that affords no lime but what is burned of oyster shells.” In 1853, Fowler, in his “Home For All,” advises that “those persons who would economize have only to order those very shells which the oysterman has to pay to have carted away, carried to your building spot.” As early as 1853, an Almanac discloses that “all land on which clover is grown must either have lime naturally or that mineral must be artificially supplied in the form of stone-lime, oyster-lime, or mar.”

To “Oyster” is used as an intransitive verb and the Brookhaven town records in 1767 record that “The Trustees shall . . . [missing page 4]

. . . seaboards from Maine to Florida. Morton (1667) explains that many of these are twelve or fifteen feet high. Hawkins (1787), “At the lower part of the bluff is a bed of oyster shells.” Paulding (1817) writes from the South, “There are large masses of oyster shells along the banks.” New Haven (1642), “The common fields called the oyster shell fields.” Providence (1723), “eight acres upon oyster shell plains.” New York (1885), “Oyster shell bank.”

So with Weld (1799) in his “Travels” we record that on the day that the FirePlace Oysters came from Ellsworth in Greenport, that “oyster meat formed the whole of our dinner.” Someone in 1902, in a New York paper speaks of “the twenty-five cent democratic oyster stew” so we must add that ours cost more than that by a considerable amount—but was entirely worth it.

We enjoyed the oysters and the reminiscences of home; how our boys one summer went to the FirePlace Camp and how in the patriarchal days of Lyon Gardiner and his succeeding proprietors, the signal fires to call the Gardner’s Island boat were kindled at the “fire place” from whence our oysters came out of deep water, sea salted, and fresh (all at the same time), and “fat as butter” as the saying goes; “like a piece of pork” in texture and everything else that a Gardiner’s Bay oyster ought to have and be.

And because Bronson Alcott said that one ought to live above the table we have with the generous help of the Dictionary of the American Language, put together this tribute to this succulent bivalve.

“If I am not here when you awake
Just hunt me up with an oyster-rake.”
(Billings “HardTack” 1866) 

--Jesse Halsey

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