Places: Pearl Street; The Mermaid Inn

These days, New York is known for it’s pizza, bagels (my favorite!), and street-cart soft pretzels. But before all these modern foods were even part of our vocabulary, New Yorkers were eating oysters.

The estuary of the lower Hudson River is the perfect place for oysters – who thrive in just that kind of climate and water level. The Lenape Indians, the original inhabitants of Manahatta, were definitely eating oysters – archaeologists are always finding evidence of oyster shells during excavations, and it is clear from this evidence that oysters and other shellfish were a major part of the Lenape diet.

When Henry Hudson arrived in New York in 1609, the New York Harbor had over 350 square miles of oyster beds (likely more than half the oysters in the world!). The Dutch who settled here readily embraced the abundant supply of oysters. Oysters were sustenance not for an elite class of aristocrats but for ordinary people. The Dutch even named Pearl Street in downtown Manhattan because of the way the oyster shells paving the street glistened in the sun, resembling pearls.

Mark Kurlansky wrote a fantastic book on the history of oysters in New York, The Big Oyster: History on the Half Shell. In this book, Kurlansky writes, “Before the 20th century, when people thought of New York, they thought of oysters.”

Oyster Houses
Berenice Abbott, Oyster Houses, 1937.
From the Collections of the Museum of the City of New York.

Throughout the 18th and 19th centuries (and even into the beginning of the 20th century), New York was full of oyster houses. Restaurants such as Delmonico’s and Downing’s Oyster House were hot spots for New York’s elite. However, oysters remained accessible to ordinary people. Although they were on the menu of almost every fancy New York restaurant, oysters could also be bought at street carts and cheap eateries throughout the city. Poor New Yorkers of the 19th century truly survived on bread and oysters.

Naples Clam Bar.
George Herlick, Naples Clam Bar, 1937.
From the Collections of the Museum of the City of New York.

However, by 1927, over-harvesting among other things (sewage and landfills – ew!) had wreaked havoc on the oyster supply in New York. Ultimately, oysters from the New York Harbor were determined to be too toxic to eat. Although oyster-eating remained fairly popular in New York throughout the early 20th century (the iconic Grand Central Oyster Bar opened in 1913), New Yorkers were no longer eating local oysters – they had to bring them in from less-polluted supplies.

Oysters have made a bit of a “comeback” in the New York food scene over the past decade or so. According to the Village Voice, “Oysters are now offered at almost all restaurants of a certain echelon that are worth their salt.” The most “local” oysters you can find in New York are from Long Island – the New York Harbor is sadly still too polluted to eat oysters out of (though cleanup efforts are underway!).

Photo courtesy of The Mermaid Inn.

I’m embarrassed to say that, until last Friday, I had never eaten an oyster (I don’t know how it happened – but it did!). However my oyster-loving friend Emy decided to change that by taking me to the Mermaid Inn, a classic oyster restaurant in the East Village. We tried a few different oysters – one from the Chesapeake Bay, another from the West Coast – but we made sure to try some Long Island oysters. (Naturally, they were the best!)

If you want to get a real taste of New York City, my recommendation is to skip the (usually stale) street cart soft pretzels and head straight to one of our many great oyster spots!

On the half shell,

Leave a Reply Cancel reply