A Billion Oysters Tell the History of New York


The history of New York oysters is the history of New York itself. — Mark Kurlansky, The Big Oyster

Picture yourself on a boat on the Hudson River: taking in the view, eating copious piles of wood-fire-roasted oysters, and swigging generous drafts of locally brewed beer.
It might remind you of last weekend’s party aboard a schooner in Lower Manhattan. It’s also an apt description of a typical feast in seventeenth-century New York.

British explorer Henry Hudson coasted into New York Harbor in 1609; his 85-foot ship sailed between Staten Island and Brooklyn, toward the mouth of the river that would be named for him. There, as author Mark Kurlansky describes in The Big Oyster: History on the Half-Shell, he found a pristine, grassy wetland, “lush, green, rocky islands” in the middle of an estuary that still defines the geography of New York City. The waters of New York Harbor, with their fluctuating balance of salt and fresh waters, allowed oysters to thrive. As natural, living filters, the mollusks not only kept the estuary healthy and clean, but were an abundant delicacy, eaten with gusto by the Native American Lenape and colonial settlers alike. For thousands of years, oysters were plentiful in the brackish waters all around the land that became New York City; some ancient piles of shells, known as middens, date to 6950 B.C.

Over the centuries, oysters continued to play a huge part in New York’s economy. According to Kurlansky, nineteenth-century New Yorkers “consumed as many as a million oysters a day,” and they were shipped to far-flung aficionados in Chicago, San Francisco, Paris, and London. The New York oyster industry survived, somewhat miraculously, into the early twentieth century. Hundreds of years of raw sewage, industrial pollution, and large-scale dredging in the harbor contributed to the decline of oyster habitats, little by little, until they disappeared completely. In 1927, Kurlansky writes, “the last of the Raritan Bay beds was closed, marking the end of oystering in New York City.”

The Billion Oyster Project has a long-term goal: to help repair the ecosystem of New York Harbor, one of the busiest ports in the world, by adding 1 billion live oysters back to the water by 2030. In the process, the project’s educational program, New York Harbor School, engages children, teachers, and volunteers, teaching them how to raise larvae, build nurseries, and conduct research.

Oceana executive chef Ben Pollinger connected with B.O.P. director Peter Malinowski about five years ago, when he heard Malinowski was looking to build a reef made of oyster shells in New York Harbor. “It was very small-scale, very grassroots,” Pollinger tells the Voice. “I’ve always been ecologically minded, and I thought it would be great to get involved. I realized we were producing significant amounts of waste in the form of oyster shells at the restaurant, and I could help divert tons and tons of them every year from the garbage.”

Oceana (and other restaurant kitchens that contribute to the B.O.P.) save their oyster shells in bags, and the Harbor School picks them up every week. After a sun-curing process to clean the shells and rid them of any lingering organic material, they’re thrown back into the water in piles. The shells are then seeded with oyster larvae, ready to begin another life cycle. The oysters growing in the developing reefs are not meant to be eaten — the water is too contaminated, and probably will be for a long time to come. It’s more about education, awareness, and taking steps toward restoring the harbor to health.

On Wednesday, June 3, to help support funding and research for the program, the B.O.P. is throwing the Billion Oyster Party, a gala fundraiser at Pioneer Works (159 Pioneer Street; Brooklyn). More than 15,000 oysters from over 30 oyster farms around the United States will be shucked for tasting, prepared by New York chefs from Oceana and other partner restaurants including Gramercy Tavern, Grand Central Oyster Bar, and Brooklyn Crab.

Re-oystering the harbor’s no cheap proposition, and tickets to the party will run you $150 and up. Lacking a bag flush with wampum, oyster lovers can support B.O.P.’s mission in other ways: namely, by eating oysters, lots of them, at partner restaurants, which will collect your shells to build more reefs. Or you can volunteer during regularly scheduled days on Governors Island, helping to build and install oyster reefs, prepare shells for seeding, and more.

Click here for a list of participating restaurants, more information on the Billion Oyster Project, or to purchase a ticket to the party.