A festival of oysters! Last night friends and I went to a fundraiser for the New Amsterdam Market down near the former Fulton Fish Market. I was happy to support the market, and with an abundance of oysters (both raw and in cooked dishes), I excitedly bought us tickets…
A while back, I read The Big Oyster, one of those single-subject nonfiction books that have been so popular for the last decade, in which the author, Mark Kurlansky (also the author of Cod and Salt, two very interesting reads), posits that oysters were the great shaper of New York. Oysters used to, apparently, be so plentiful in the harbor that they would be sold for a penny an oyster, and it wasn’t unheard of to eat dozens at a time. The waters used to be full of oysters, and large piles of discarded shells have been found throughout the boroughs’ shores. But of course, we’ve polluted the waters and choked off the ecosystem to such an extent that the oyster population isn’t as hardy (and because oysters are like living filters, they really take in all the toxins in the water, making the ones that were holding on unfit to eat).
These days, oysters are making a comeback: the waters are getting cleaner bit by bit, and the oysters are both coming back and are safe to eat again. And that’s good news, I think, because I love oysters so much. The outdoor Oyster Saloon allowed us to sample about 15 different kinds of raw oyster (though we have no idea what was what, since even though the stalls were labeled, once you load up a paper plate, you immediately lose track). Our $50 admission earned us 20 food tickets; most oysters were 1 oyster a ticket. Sadly, not all of the samples were up to normal standards in order to compare—many of the stalls had friendly but not skilled volunteers doing the shucking. I got more than one mouthful of grit and more shards of shell than should have been acceptable, not to mention the number that were not properly released from the shell (I ate several with my hands because there was no possible way to slurp it in).
Several restaurants were there cooking oysters on the spot and “selling” the dishes for a few food tickets each; the grilled ones from Luke’s Lobster had some kind of butter topping that was delicious. This was my first time sampling Oysters Rockefeller, and from having edited several cookbooks I know that the exact recipe and ingredients of the dish are not set in stone; however, this one from Great Performances was basically a spinach dish that was tasty but had almost no discernible oyster component. The “pan-roasted” ones from the John Dory were actually a soup, which we didn’t understand, but I found it delicious and I drank up every drop. The fried oysters in a cone from Bobo were light and tender and fabulous; the fried ones atop the Po’Boy from Neuman’s catering tasted like nothing at all and the bread was dense and almost stale. So, there were some major misses along with the hits.
And boy was it crowded! Luckily our friends T and L secured us a spot at the front of the line (you can see the line in the very first picture above) so we were the first ones in. I’m glad, too, because it meant we were able to try pretty much everything we wanted without a huge line, though it meant we were the first to encounter the many, many instances of extreme confusion on the part of the organizers and vendors. (Don’t get me started on the inept volunteers.) We made our way out of the crowd and were able to unwind with a glass of wine nearby, not full of oysters exactly, but pretty satisfied with the briny mouthfuls we’d had.