True Oyster Cult
A brief history of New Yorkers’ love affair with our favorite native bivalve—and an eater's guide to the very best from Eastern Long Island and the Sound. By Biddle Duke. With paintings by Nadine Robbins
Life Is Meals is the title of a cookbook by one of my literary idols, the late James Salter of Sagaponack. He’s right, of course. We measure and remember our lives and the places we love by the meals we have and who we share them with.
I often wonder, when I have something delicious in my mouth, who first introduced this particularly yummy thing into our lives. What intrepid soul had the daring to try the first tomato, the curiosity to roast the first coffee bean, the sense to bite into the flesh of a snail, the genius to pickle a herring? Who ate this first? And when? And why?
Which brings us to oysters. When Europeans arrived in New York some 400 years ago they found a native population feasting regularly on oysters. What is now New York Harbor, that grand estuary from the southern Hudson to Staten Island up the East River, was covered in them—the sea floor and shoreline from the Chesapeake to Long Island Sound were the most productive oyster grounds on Earth, and New York City quickly became the oyster capital of the world. When people thought of New York, they thought of oysters. It could well have been not the Big Apple but the Big Oyster. (Mark Kurlansky discusses this in his book of the same name, about the history of New York through this briny bivalve.)
So plentiful and cheap were oysters that New York City families would eat at least two oyster meals a week—stewed, raw, fried—and the city boasted dozens of oyster restaurants, back then known as “cellars.” But as the city grew and pollution filled the rivers, the oysters began to die off, and the eating of New York Harbor oysters ended sometime in the early 1900s. Those that now remain in that estuary are too filled with heavy metals and other poisons to be edible.
The collapse of wild oyster beds from pollution and overharvesting combined with unending demand spawned the rise of oyster farming in clean bays. Oystermen have been seeding oysters on suitable bay bottoms and floats for over a century, but the scale of production has increased since the 1960s and ’70s. These days, commercial and home oyster farmers abound up and down the seaboard, encouraged by state and local governments that recognize the value that filter-feeding oysters bring to water quality, not to mention the dinner table.
We now find ourselves in a sort of oyster renaissance.
“The tastiest oysters the world has yet produced can be found in the bays and bars of America at this very moment . . .” writes journalist Rowan Jacobsen in The Essential Oyster, with “more diverse and delicious oysters in more new places. These are not your grandfather’s oysters. They blow his away.”
My own love of oysters has never waned. Coming home to New York City always meant Mom would take me down to one of the last remaining oyster cellars, the Oyster Bar in Grand Central Station, under the guise of feeding my own oyster craving. She would, in fact, order a dozen Blue Points for herself and wolf them down before I could squeeze my first wedge of lemon. Now I do the same when my daughter comes to town.
“It is hard to explain to those who don’t do it by what strange impulse humans take these primitive creatures with their tiny hearts pounding and slide them down their throats,” Kurlansky writes in The Big Oyster. It is indeed. Life, as Salter said, is meals, and for me a cold oyster has the taste of my youth, of my mother, of life on the South Fork, where I grew up.
Oysters, like wine or cheese or coffee, do taste of their place. They are essentially part of the terrain, and their flavor emerges from the water and the micro-organisms they filter. You are quite literally eating the sea. Like wine’s terroir, for passionate oyster eaters it’s an oyster’s “meroir.” This is why, for example, oysters from the brackish waters of the Chesapeake Bay taste less salty, in general, than oysters from open waters in New England.
All oysters in these parts—in and around Long Island Sound and the bays and estuaries of the East End—are Crassostrea virginica, or Eastern oysters. So if those from the shallows in Hog Neck Bay in Southold taste different from Peconic Golds grown in deeper water in Peconic Bay, it is that meroir at play.
Could I taste the difference? To find out I sought the help of Ian Wile, who farms oysters on the North Fork with his wife, Rosalie, and owns and runs Little Creek Oysters in Greenport, where they serve dozens of local varieties.
Ian explained that not only do oysters taste different from one creek to the next, but their flavor changes with the seasons. You might hear differing opinions, but the best time to eat oysters is late summer and fall, when they’re fattening up for winter dormancy in nutrient-rich warm waters. Also, in late springtime, when the bivalves eat voraciously after surviving a lean, cold winter, oysters take on sweeter, fresh, grassy characteristics. Although popular at the height of summer, oysters spawn in those warmest months, depleting them and shrinking their bodies; their taste follows suit. (Traditionally, oysters were eaten only in the colder months whose names contained the letter R—September through March—in part to allow the bivalves to spawn unmolested, but also because in the era before dependable refrigeration, transporting shellfish in the summer was a health concern.)
My tasting at Little Creek Oysters occurred in early October. There are dozens of excellent oyster farms out here, each producing a product with its own unique flavor and characteristics and story worthy of exploration and experiencing. We tried half a dozen, all raised within 50 miles of East Hampton. Every oyster was perfect, but some were more pleasing than others. Here are my favorites and my notes in ascending order (favorites at the end). Prepare for oyster lexicon, which, as for wine, has a language all its own.
Oysterponds: These are raised by Phil Mastrangelo, Reg Tuthill, and the crew at Oysterponds Shellfish Company in tidal creeks off Orient on the North Fork. Medium salinity, with a full dose of tangy seaweedy-ness.
Fishers Island: Briny, rich, with a fresh, mineral taste of the open ocean off that island where the Malinowski family has farmed oysters since 1981.
Fire Island Blues: Like the Blue Points of yore, which were once (but no longer) harvested across the Great South Bay, these Blues are large and plump, with a bright, juicy finish, evoking the sparkling taste of the Atlantic. They’re raised by the Blue Island Oyster Farm in the algae- and plankton-rich currents just inside Fire Island Inlet.
Hog Neck Bay: These are Ian and Rosalie Wile’s oysters, a product of their Little Creek Oyster Farm, and the house oyster at their restaurant. Grown in a creek off Peconic Bay, these are classic creek oysters, small but plump, with a distinct rust-colored shell and a deep briny, rich flavor.
Montauk Pearls: Grown by Mike Doall and Mike Martinsen in Lake Montauk and finished in Block Island Sound, these beauties are delicate, with hints of minerality and a light salinity.
Cornelius Queens: Big and fat, almost buttery, with delicate grassy notes, these are raised by the newly launched Shelter Island Oyster Farm in waters open to the Atlantic currents between Cornelius Point and Ram Island. They were our tasting favorites, until . . .
The Shinnecock Nation Oyster: “These are the prize,” said Ian. But he didn’t have any.
At top of page: Viola Cause works the Shinnecock Nation’s oyster grounds, Shinnecock “Chief” oysters have a distinctive green-hued shell, with a deep cup and a classic, pearly-white interior. Some (that is, well, we) consider them perhaps the best oysters in the United States. Photograph by Biddle Duke. Above: The table is set for New Year’s Eve in a recent oil-on-linen piece, titled 9:05 (2017, 24” x 24”), by the Hudson Valley realist Nadine Robbins, some of whose figurative work was shown earlier this month in Bridgehampton. A portion of the proceeds of her mouthwatering and rather sexy oyster series goes to oyster-conservation organizations.
There’s something almost mystical about Shinnecock oysters, harvested by the continent’s indigenous inhabitants. The Shinnecocks, an Algonquin people who, with the Montauketts, inhabited this entire region—but whose tribal lands are now 830 acres adjacent to Southampton Village—have been working Shinnecock Bay and its tributaries, and harvesting oysters from those bottomlands, for millennia.
It is the American Indians who had that first eureka moment, cracking a Virginica open who knows how many thousands of years ago and giving it a suspicious try.
Shinnecocks opened their hatchery out here in 1978, and over the years they’ve sold their “Chief Oysters” to seed local bays and creeks, at the Southampton farmers market, and to shellfish distributors and a handful of restaurants. But right now the only sure way to get them is to call the Nation and pay it a visit.
Viola Cause, who works the Nation’s oyster grounds among her many jobs with the Shinnecock Environmental Department, waded out into the bay to fetch a dozen. Unlike many farmed oysters these days, these were of various sizes. She opened six and placed them in a row on a nearby flat rock. “I learned all about these growing up, going to the hatchery,” she said, beaming. “It was a great way to grow up.”
We each slid one into our mouth. There was a light southwest wind blowing on this sun-splashed October day. Tiny lapping waves licked our feet. Just offshore a flock of seagulls and terns chased schooling fish. In the distance were Southampton’s barrier beaches where I’d grown up exploring before the big houses went up, and farther still the Shinnecock Inlet and the Atlantic Ocean, glinting. The sweet, salty smell of the boundless sea, of regeneration.
“The best explanation” for why we love oysters, writes Kurlansky, “is that a fresh oyster from a clean sea fills the palate with the taste of all the excitement and beauty—the essence—of the ocean.”
To me, those Shinnecock oysters tasted just like home. •
A painting titled Ice (2016, 36” x 36”) by Nadine Robbins.