“Waiting, yes, oysters are good at waiting. Darkly tucked in their calciferous shells, listening warily for dangers, breathing oxygen into the water, sifting the silt, changing sex, the oyster has witnessed all our histories, all our struggles.”
—Drew Smith, in his foreword to Oyster: A Gastronomic History (with recipes)
Drew Smith, food writer, expert, and author, knows that we’ve just arrived. Our earliest hominid ancestors began haunting the Earth millennia after oysters appeared—a mere four to six million years ago compared to oysters’ Paleozoic birth 300 million years before. Yet the oysters, clinging to their still, dark corners, are haunting us still; they return again and again, driving us mad with lusts of all ilk, inspiring us, disgracing us: reminding us. At least, that's what Smith’s most recent book, Oyster: A Gastronomic History (with recipes) aims to do: remind us of a forgotten history.
It’s understandable. Cooking goes beyond just the food. Food is, really, more than the food. The same way we whisper to our lovers across the table over the lush aromas of basil and garlic. The way we watch one another with wonder and excitement as we slurp up an oyster on the shell, we might also inquire about the history. We want to know about seasons, farms, sustainability, and context. Food has become, for some, an intellectual pursuit.
Our curiosity may be born of mistrust, though. For decades now, we’ve been in constant cycle of unpleasant discovery about the food we eat, will eat, and have eaten for centuries. One need look no further than the WHO’s 2015 groundbreaking (and highly inflammatory) findings on the cancer-causing carbon found in processed meats, the 1983 inception of the low-fat McDougall diet, the 1990s DASH trials that exposed the horrors of salt and high blood pressure, and more.
This evening, though, Smith enjoys a quiet evening in London. A sense of calm emanates through the receiver as he observes another food panic: “You know, our mothers used to be who we’d go to for that sort of thing. She was the one that held all the information. But we’ve lost that security—we need to find the information for ourselves.”
Smith was born in London, where he has lived and worked throughout his career. He made his way up from working in the newspapers to becoming the editor of the first Good Food Guide. Smith’s reputed for coining the term “modern British cookery” in 1987, this an effort to denominate the revolutionary surge in British cooking that favored nouvelle cuisine and Pan-European influences. His tastes—both savory and semiotic—earned him certain favor; Smith worked for years as a food columnist for the Guardian.
Regarding food and context, Smith goes on to say: “It actually inspires people to cook. Cooking occupies a different part of our lifestyle. From my point of view, I think we’re reclaiming the damage we’ve done and understanding food’s value.”
Smith’s initial interest in Pan-European cuisine may have been a harbinger for books to come. Oysters, too, have spanned a diverse scope of European culinary traditions and beyond, rendering their gastronomic history vast, and difficult to channel into a precise narrative. Oyster: A Gastronomic History, however, efforts towards just that. After a beautiful introductory section on the almost mythological science of the oyster the book delves into our messy history eating it.
The mysteriously sessile mollusks have been associated with gluttony in Ancient Rome (the emperor Aulus Vitellius ate a legendary 1,200 oysters at one decadent Roman banquet); French smuggling operations (the oyster boats became the imperative vessels to facilitate a black economy operating down the length of the English Channel); raunchy Scottish pub songs chorusing about “oyster girls” who bargained their marine wares in the streets; and New Orleans burlesque clubs joining the sensual pleasures of oyster consumption and exotic dancing. At times, Oyster’s pages resemble what could be a Taschen art book meeting an Encyclopedia Britannica volume. From Botticelli paintings to old cannery photographs, Lewis Carroll illustrations to renderings of explicit New Orleans dancers, the images alone prove that the oyster’s history is as nuanced and characteristic as its multitudinous genera.
It’s an odd kinship to have between those life-giving, nutritious, gastronomically-coveted oysters and all of these nefarious histories. But that’s the risk inherent to its reward. There’s something bawdy and elite when anyone eats an oyster. Like art, we love it intellectually and, most importantly, viscerally. Of course, this can lead to decadence, though Smith doesn’t consider this a sin.
In fact, he gives a recipe for Angels on Horseback (bacon-wrapped oysters) that he likens to Pigs in a Blanket. ”It wouldn’t have been more than a treat,” he says. “It’s kind of food for food’s sake. [Angels on Horseback] were served in the old days. We don’t see them much in the modern restaurant. We think differently now.”
We do think differently now, perhaps because we have no other choice. While chefs and connoisseurs tend to be fairly self-serving when they choose the contexts they explore, we’re growing more interested in our food’s ecological context. Perhaps we’re more in tune with how the environment changes us, and in turn how we’re changing the environment.
“Oysters, in a way, yes, they are food. But they also are the start of the ecosystem. If you put them back, they’ll produce clean waters, as well as other fish and fauna.”
Oysters are life-giving entities, taking little and returning much. Their feeding process naturally cleans waters; they gulp the water, filter out plankton and detritus, swallow the mixture, and then spit out filtered water—up to 50 gallons per day. Their regenerative nature means that oysters tend to band together—imminent young oysters (larvae) prefer to settle next to other oyster shells rather than docks or boat hulls. By planting oyster shells back in the sea, we’re able to attract more and more oysters to them…thus creating a reef. The calcium-rich shells can also enrich arable land when ground into soil. Burdened with oceans full of spilled oil and lands thirsting for water, the oyster may prove vital to a more verdant future.
“They’re the lungs of the estuary,” says Smith. “They’re putting in oxygen and aerating the water. When we eat oysters, when we talk about estuaries, we talk about millions.”
But those millions of oysters have now seen, as Smith puts it, a “cataclysmic decline.” World Wars, pollution, and over-harvesting have reduced the global coastal oyster population to one percent of what it was. Now, governments put millions of dollars into oyster reef restoration worldwide. It's a movement of which, for once, the United States is clearly at the forefront, simply preserving used, empty oyster shells and returning them to the sea.
“We’re building up great bands of oysters to protect the land from the sea flow,” says Smith, "from Loch Ryan to the Chesapeake Bay to New York Harbor."
Railway transportation, canning, harvesting, pollution and even globalization are responsible for the oyster dearth. As Smith laments, “When America was first discovered, the whole shorelines was covered with them. Then the first wave of people got at them. And then they got a train so they could yank them out and industrialize. The next problem is pollution. By and large most of the damage of the American beds has been pollution. Just straightforward dirt."
Smith adds that San Francisco has an especial battle in this regard.
“The Victorian thinking was that they could put the sewage pipes out on the oysters and the oysters would sort it out. We’ve got a culture that puts things in the rivers and thinks the rivers will wash it away. “
So it seems the still, purifying, generative oysters may be able to teach us something both through their history and their very being—in their life-giving, quiet corners of waiting. According to Smith, “I couldn’t have written a book like this about any other food. The history of meat in America really starts in 1890. It doesn’t go very far back at all. The fascinating thing about oysters is that you can find a recipe for oysters in Japan that is probably about 2,000 years old. It’s the same thing in Indonesia, Australia…”
Smith trails off. The history is vast and ancient: more than possible to cover in one interview. More than can be contained in a large, beautiful book. Yet, within its complex history, within the ancient legends, bawdy limericks, Bacchanal feasts, and ecological impacts, food ultimately simmers down to the individual. Smith’s favorite oyster dish is startlingly simple and largely his own: an oyster stew.
“In my humble opinion, that is the best oyster soup in the world,” he begins. At this point I hear the self-satisfaction and pride that have been, for the majority of our conversation, directed towards oysters themselves. “When you’re writing a recipe while you’re looking across the whole spectrum of time, you have to adapt.”
Adapting, yes, humans are good at adapting. Humans have survived because of our ability to both adapt to our environments, and modify them for our benefit. Though our history books, our legends, our recipes—and the contexts we curate for them—might be set aside, in cupboards and on shelves, online and in print—we do not wait. Like Smith, we lunge towards the future, while fighting for preservation.