When thinking of oysters in New York City, what comes to mind? Maybe images of Manhattan’s upper crust, sipping champagne in private clubs? Or perhaps, it’s cigar-smoking politicians and businessmen negotiating deals in dimly lit rooms.
Well, not so fast folks. Sure, oysters may not be cheap these days but that hasn’t always been the case. In reality, their true relationship with the Big Apple extends far beyond rich kid clubs. That’s right. These delicious bivalves not only fueled working class New Yorkers for generations but also played a surprising role in the development of the city.
A city built by oysters
Oysters thrived for millennia in the brackish waters around New York Harbor, keeping the estuary clean thanks to their natural filtration abilities, and serving as a favored food for the Lenape people who originally inhabited the region.
By the 18th century, immigrants to what was then known as New Amsterdam referred to Ellis and Liberty islands as “Little Oyster Island” and “Great Oyster Island,” respectively. The Dutch named the waterfront Pearl Street for a midden, later paving it with discarded oyster shells (though they were disappointed to discover that New York oysters don’t actually produce pearls).
The combination of having reputably the best oysters in the world in what had become inarguably the greatest port in the world made New York City, for an entire century, the world’s oyster capital.
As the city expanded, many of the buildings (including Trinity Church) depended on the burning of oyster shells for lime. They were used to pave roads, crushed into mortar paste to fuel the building boom (Trinity Church, for example, was built with oyster shell-mortar paste), or burned for lime (a practice which was eventually outlawed due to its unfortunate, acrid smell).
Oyster carts were the original hot dog carts
Before there were hot dog carts on the corners, there were oyster carts on the streets. Oysters were also sold off boats tied up along the canals. You basically couldn’t throw an oyster shell without hitting another oyster vendor.
In fact, oysters were so ubiquitous that Annie Hauck-Lawson and Jonathan Deutsch, in their book Gastropolis: Food and New York City, claim that even “the very poorest New Yorkers had no other substance than oysters and bread.”
African-American Contributions to Oysterculture
The oyster industry has a rich history in the United States, with roots dating back to the early 1700s. However, it is not often acknowledged that a significant portion of the oyster industry’s workforce throughout history has been made up of African American men. These men, known as “oyster tongers,” have played a crucial role in the industry, despite facing discrimination and adversity.
The oyster tongers were responsible for harvesting oysters from the beds using tongs, a tool consisting of two long handles with metal prongs at the end. This work was physically demanding, often requiring the oyster tongers to work in harsh conditions, such as in freezing temperatures or during storms. Despite the difficulties, many African American men saw oystering as an opportunity for economic stability and the chance to provide for their families.
However, the oyster industry was not a welcoming place for African American oyster tongers. They faced discrimination from white oystermen and were often confined to working in areas deemed “less desirable” by their white counterparts. Additionally, they were often paid less for the same work and were not given the same opportunities for advancement.
Despite these challenges, the African American oyster tongers persevered, forming their own communities and working together to support each other. They also played an important role in the Civil Rights Movement, using their work as a platform to advocate for equal rights and fair treatment.
The legacy of African American oyster tongers is one of resilience and determination. They faced discrimination and adversity, yet they persevered and made significant contributions to the oyster industry. Their story is a reminder of the importance of recognizing and honoring the contributions of all people, regardless of race.
Today, the oyster industry continues to thrive, and the contributions of African American oyster tongers are finally being acknowledged. Their legacy lives on as a testament to the strength and perseverance of the human spirit.
Oysters in the Bronx
So, by now, you’re probably wondering what any of this has to do with Small Axe Peppers? Well, in addition to the fact that we just really, really love oysters, we also felt that it was time for them to make a necessary return to their working class roots.
The Bronx is continually evolving — there has been a decided focus to strengthen and support community gardens and over the past few years a similar focus on cleaning its waterways. So what better way to celebrate the end of another growing season than an oyster fest?
So we teamed up with:
- Karen Washington and the folks at The Garden of Happiness
- Chefs Mike Campanile, Madeleine Kemble and Emanuel Sevilla from Zadie’s Oyster Room
- The folks at the Billion Oyster Project
- and Sixto Portilla, the oyster farmer from Maris Stella Blue Points
That’s right! An oyster fest in a Bronx community garden, celebrating humans’ connection to the land and sea. It was a sun-soaked day of delicious oysters, hot sauce and good vibes.
Huge thanks to Zadie’s Oyster Room: A “Turn of the century” style oyster basement, dedicated to serving raw and cooked oysters in every style, as well as supporting local Long Island oyster farmers.
There is no better way to grow community than bringing people from all over the City to a community garden to share stories, interests, and laughs over a delicious meal? Isn’t that what Sundays are meant for?
Karen Washington (in the yellow shirt above) has been growing produce in The Bronx since 1988. She has spent decades promoting urban farming as a way for all New Yorkers to access to fresh, locally grown food.
Community members have used the Garden of Happiness as a neighborhood gathering spot. For community residents, the Garden is more than a natural refuge; it is a focus of community activity and cultural exchange. Members of the garden have organized voter registration drives, census outreach programs, workshops on agriculture and soil testing, as well as food drives for the homeless.
And what was there to top off these delicious oysters? You guessed it — the entire spectrum of Small Axe Pepper’s products. From our signature The Bronx Green Hot Sauce to our blazing Ghost Pepper, we spiced these homegrown oysters up right!
The Science of Oyster Shells
How about an Oyster Recipe?