December is a time for holiday gatherings- carols, turkey, the inevitable ‘white elephant’ gift you’ll be stuck with all year, reconnecting family and friends, and here on Maryland’s Eastern Shore, it’s an 'R’ month, which means it’s also time for oysters. This seasonal hankering for a mouthful, tasting, as de Maupassant wrote, “small and rich, looking like little ears enfolded in shells, melting between the palate and the tongue like salted sweets,” is a very old tradition, indeed. It stretches back before colonization to the time of the American Indian, where generations of East Coast oyster eaters left layers of their empty shells in immense, drifting piles, called middens.
It can be easy, here at the Museum, to become focused on Bay-related history to the exclusion of everything else. But in doing so, we miss the big picture. Enter this month’s book club pick, Mark Kurlansky’s The Big Oyster, which uses the humble mollusk as a guide through New York City’s 400 year history . Like the Chesapeake, New York’s oyster beds were incredibly prolific and expansive. The oysters within them, often 8-10 inches in size, brought the harbor’s briny bouquet to savoring mouths from the Lenape of the 1400’s to the rough and tumble oyster saloons of the 19th century. Again, sound familiar? But the narrative of the story stops short of the one we share at CBMM- by 1927, the New York oyster bars were closed. Today, it remains an estuary too polluted by poisoning chemicals for human consumption of its shellfish, and its oyster industry is only one of import.
Of course, I’m skipping over all of the really good parts, but if you’re intrigued, please read along with us in December. We’ll have a book club discussion in early January, with a blog post here to accompany the conversation. So grab a copy of The Big Oyster and slip away from the holiday hustle to the back corner of a 1840’s oyster house, where the platters of oysters shining from within their salty baths will keep coming, as fast as you can tilt the shell and slip them down your throat.
amazon.com link here: http://amzn.to/uOnuBq
NYT book review here: http://nyti.ms/d3yPkD
You can also read the first chapter free here: http://nyti.ms/tLALfG
Moving forward, our monthly book club picks will be available in our CBMM Museum Store, here in St. Michaels, Maryland.