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Sunday, March 26, 2006 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Book Review

Prying open the history of New York

The Associated Press

"The Big Oyster: History on the Half Shell"
by Mark Kurlansky
Ballantine, 307 pp., $23.95

The literary genre known as microhistory can be a dicey business. By framing larger social history through one tiny item — caffeine, flattery, the pencil, the number zero — an author risks either drowning in a tar pit of obscurity or losing the narrative thread that holds the tale together.

When it's done right, though, it can be a towering accomplishment that offers genuine insight into the world through an accessible doorway.

This is what Mark Kurlansky has done with his magnificent "The Big Oyster: History on the Half Shell," which purports to be a history of the oyster in New York but is actually a wonderfully curatorial and quirky biography of the city itself.

Kurlansky has certainly had practice in the wisdom-through-food subgenre. Two of his previous books — "Salt: A World History" and his first foray into seafood determinism, "Cod: A Biography of the Fish That Changed the World" — pried open the world through similar windows. "The Big Oyster" complements "Cod" as another excellent entree on his seafood platter of social history.

Coming up

Mark Kurlansky


The author of "The Big Oyster" will read at 7 p.m. Thursday at Third Place Books, 17171 Bothell Way N.E., Lake Forest Park; free (206-366-3333; www.thirdplacebooks.com).

So for this book, consider the oyster your tour guide as much as your subject.

It gives Kurlansky wonderfully tangential reasons to make sorties into (deep breath here), among other things, the history of the Lenape Indians, Dutch colonization, the governmental handling of slums in lower Manhattan, the nighttime commuting habits of New Yorkers and the rise of fine dining in the city with the advent of the iconic 19th-century Delmonico's restaurant.

Finnish botanists, New Jersey moonshiners and ancient Roman gluttons make cameo appearances, as do Washington Irving, Samuel Pepys, Diamond Jim Brady and the Charleses Dickens and Darwin.

At times, Kurlansky ventures a little far from his shellfish-focused theme. But it's never detrimental to the narrative. His tangents are more interesting than most writers' main points, and his dry, understated style is perfect for the material; he'll take a shot, and it's so subtle that you'll find yourself laughing two pages later.

Consider his brief account of an American shipper charged in Britain in the 1800s with mislabeling Chesapeake Bay oysters as New York bluepoints. The Americans insisted they had put the Virginia mollusks in New York waters for a time and thought that was OK for labeling purposes. "That the Americans don't know any better is always an argument of some currency in England," Kurlansky writes, "and the charges were dropped."

The theme that emerges as the oyster moves through the centuries is that, until very recently, it was a very egalitarian food. Today in Manhattan, one might pay up to $20 for a dozen oysters. That would have appalled New Yorkers of previous generations, rich and poor, who considered the bivalve a food of quantity as much as quality and gobbled up the things off oyster barges, in oyster cellars and at oyster stalls for sometimes less than a penny apiece.

The second half of the 19th century, Kurlansky writes, "was one of the few moments in culinary history when a single food, served in more or less the same preparations, was commonplace for all socioeconomic levels. It was the food of Delmonico's and the food of the dangerous slum."

What's also amazing is how much this basic food drove the economy and aesthetics of New York and helped it grow into a world-class city by the beginning of the 20th century. Of course, a good writer with strong research could make this case for many things when it comes to New York, but Kurlansky's effort is as well-researched as it is persuasive. (Plus, it has recipes!)

In a day when shiny things that jump around and make noise command our attention, we need more than ever to notice the significance of smaller items and ideas and consider what they mean to our world. Could the history of the tiny oyster possibly be more important than Brangelina, Fox News and "The Apprentice"? Thanks to Kurlansky, we know for sure that the answer is yes.

A parting note: Don't be surprised if, sometime during the reading of this, you develop a strange and nagging hankering for oysters. One can only imagine what Kurlansky's next endeavor might be. Think about it: Can "Lobster: Crustacean of Destiny" be far behind?

Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company

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